Back home in tobacco country for a family wedding this weekend, I’ve been thinking about how often Southern white folks have been duped into fighting the blacks or the Mexicans–or even the “white trash”–so that the balance of power remains in the control of elites.Why did so many Southerners fight and die to keep slavery when they’d never owned slaves? Why do their descendants vote for people who cut their benefits and break the unions that would guarantee them a better wage?
Not long ago, I was preaching at a Church of Christ school where the chaplain informed me that Willie Robertson had recently been there. The Robertson family, I was told, have used their TV fame to spread the good news of Jesus, despite the liberal media’s attempt to silence them. The Robertson’s, I was told, are real rebels for the Lord.
But Willie’s daddy, Phil, has been in hot water for going off on the gays in a GQ interview. And upon further investigation, it turns out that Phil has also said share-cropping and Jim Crow weren’t that bad either.
Easy to say, I guess, when you’ve built a Duck Dynasty. But why do so many of the South’s hard-working, Jesus-loving people go for these self-defeating lies?
We have been deceived. But the Lord still sends us prophets to shine light on our darkness. Bob Zellner, who was with us on this year’s Freedom Ride, wrote this open letter to brother Phil. Glad to get to share it here.
Dear Phil Robertson,
I have a friend named Phil Robinson, and you remind me a little of him. Phil did a movie called Field of Dreams about the sixties and baseball with the theme “If you build it they will come.” You built a great duck call and they did come, so you and your family have become rich and famous. It has helped, no doubt, that you and your gifted family have gotten good educations, despite your good old boys ways.
My friend Phil Robinson also did a great film called Freedom Song about the struggle for equal rights in our beloved Southland. The main story of Freedom Song, starring Danny Glover, took place in McComb, Mississippi on October 4, 1961 when you were, I believe, a teenager. It’s a sad but true story of how Herbert Lee was shot to death at the cotton gin in Liberty, Mississippi by his next-door neighbor, E. H. Hurst, a white member of the state legislature. Lee had the courage to try as a black man to register to vote, a capital crime in the great state where they love the “Southern Way of Life.” The hard little town of McComb is not far from where you grew up in Louisiana and where I grew up in Alabama.
What I am trying to say to you, Phil Robertson, is that we grew up around what I call unnoticed ugliness. Years from now when there’s no need for phone and light wires or they are all underground, our great-grandkids, if we are lucky enough to have some, will ask how we tolerated the ugly overhead wires and telephone poles all askew along the road. We’ll say we didn’t notice.
Phil, you make a big point of being really Southern. If you are, did you really not know what was going on? My preacher daddy was in the Klan, so was Granddaddy. When Daddy quit the KKK and joined Joe Lowery and Dr. King, helping to integrate the buses in Mobile, my granddaddy disowned him, cutting him out of the will, and his blood brothers never spoke another word to him in his whole life.
You didn’t notice any of this? You are on the big screen now and you have a responsibility to learn what pains people today and try to make it better, not worse.
We all have to apologize when we make mistakes, and you have been big enough to begin to do that. We didn’t notice when we were growing up that people who were not like us were terribly injured by what we did and what we did not do. Now we have to notice the ugliness and acknowledge our part in creating that ugliness.
Sincerely, your brother in the faith,