On Saturday, Aug. 12, a young man from Ohio named James Alex Fields allegedly sped his Dodge Charger into a group that came to counterprotest white supremacists rallying in opposition to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
When I saw Fields’ photograph on the nightly news, I thought that he looked familiar. Then it dawned on me; I had seen him before.
When I was traveling through North Carolina back in the mid-1960s, I was picked up by a group of men who drove me to a remote camp, offered me a beer, and asked me how I felt about all “this integration stuff.” There was a man in the back seat who kept muttering vicious threats. He looked like James Alex Fields.
When I was hitchhiking across the United States in the late 1960s, I stopped late at night in a roadside diner in Ohio. The plan was to nurse a cup of coffee and a muffin until the sun came up, and then I would hit the road again. Suddenly, I was surrounded by three men, all carrying large wrenches. One of the men slapped the wrench in his right hand against his left hand and said I had 30 seconds to leave. That man looked like James Alex Fields.
When I was sitting in a classroom in the 1980s in Boston with a professor who scoffed at my comments on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” he said that graduate school was clearly not for me, and that my working-class, public-school, Boston Irish heritage disqualified me for the higher echelons of academia. That professor resembled James Alex Fields.
I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a small house in a Massachusetts neighborhood nicknamed “Stinky Hollow,” and I had the audacity to pursue a young woman from the other side of town. That young woman’s father, owner of a large sailboat, an old house on the water, and a private pew in the First Congregational Church, was perhaps related by “blood and soil” to James Alex Fields. He was, however, known locally as the “Squire.”
When I confessed that I was in love with a woman of African-American descent, I was advised to “think about the children,” the implication being that I had no right to impose the hardship of mixed race on these innocents. The person who advised me was almost as concerned about the future of race relations in the United States as James Alex Fields.
When I went on strike once for higher wages in the 1970s, the man who eventually emerged from the administrative office to inform me and my fellow workers that, regretfully, our strike had failed resembled James Alex Fields.
When my skull was cracked by a billy club when I was protesting in San Francisco a costly and unjust war, the man that wielded that club — I will never forget the hatred I saw in his eyes — looked like James Alex Fields.
No Irish allowed. No colored allowed. No Mexicans allowed. No women allowed. No headscarves allowed. The people who put these signs up all looked like James Alex Fields.
In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered about five weeks before he was assassinated by a man who looked a lot like James Alex Fields, President Abraham Lincoln noted that slavery was, in spite of what many claimed, the cause of the Civil War. Those who wanted to perpetuate slavery and maintain and even extend white, Anglo-Saxon dominance started the war.
The men who fought to perpetuate slavery, many of them brave and heroic warriors, denied the exceptional morality of this nation’s founding proposition, that all human beings “are created equal,” should not be honored with marches, demonstrations or statues in public spaces. Nor should they be equated with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
William J. Murphy teaches high school English and history.