On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama, America’s first African-American Presidential nominee, won the Presidency of the United States of America. This week, two weeks following that historic event, marks the fifth anniversary of when a racist put a bullet through the front window of my home.
As an editorial cartoonist, I have received many threatening letters throughout my career. They usually arrive when passions are running high about some particular issue. At my first cartooning job, I once got a letter telling me that my face was going to be ‘blown off’ when a reader was especially angry about a cartoon I had done. I showed it to the editorial page editor, who told me, with a smile, that I had nothing to worry about. “Don’t be concerned about those readers who tell you ahead of time. It’s the ones that don’t tell you that you need to worry about,” he said. I found little consolation in his advice.
I live in Memphis, and it was in Memphis during that election when passions were running high that I got my ‘warning’. There are some people here, as elsewhere, that refuse to accept the equality of African-Americans. The KKK is still active in this region, as are members of the National Alliance, the vile hate group that spawned Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Hate has no boundaries in this world, but there is no doubt that it runs strongly among some who live here. Right-wing talk radio was ranting about my cartoons. I was getting many letters and many telephone calls complaining about how ‘leftist’, ‘socialist’, and ‘negro-loving’ (not the word they used) my cartoons are. The editor was getting them too, and he was worried. So worried, in fact, that he suggested that we endorse Barack Obama in the city edition, which has a majority Black population, and endorse John McCain in the suburban edition. Fortunately, he was persuaded that it was a bad idea. With many qualifiers about Obama and praise for McCain, we endorsed Obama.
On the day following the election there was great joy, as you can imagine, among our Black readers. Not so much among the readers who still hold the Deep South Confederacy close to their hearts. On that day, I had done a cartoon showing our President-Elect with a huge grin, and his teeth formed the shape of the United States of America. It was a big success within the city limits but not in the surrounding counties.
The vitriol poured in with letters and voice mails. It was nasty, but I had expected it.
Two weeks later, early in the morning, my wife and I heard the sound of broken glass. I got up and found a broken window with glass everywhere in a room facing the street. Thinking that a tree branch had caused it, I decided to clean it up in the morning and I went back to bed. The next day, as I was cleaning it up, I started to notice broken pieces of brick and mortar on the floor. I looked at the brick wall across from the window and saw where a bullet had lodged itself. It took me several minutes to comprehend what had happened. I began to realize that the intention was meant to scare me away from doing anymore cartoons that would offend those narrow-minded haters.
Such a tactic would never work on me. However, in March of 2009, I was rewarded for all my hard work with a layoff notice. After fifteen dedicated years of award-winning service, I was given one hour to leave the building with no severance. I had paid the price with my job. It was all couched in the ‘financial need to cut expenses’, but I knew the truth. The editor had caved to the reactionaries. I was later replaced with a conservative cartoonist on ‘contract’.
When we as a nation elected Barack Obama, we knew it was not going to be easy. There was a ‘Great Recession’ and two wars to end. There was also new President who had some brave ideas, one of which was the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is not a perfect piece of legislation, but it is a good beginning. It is a law to save the lives of those who cannot afford the high cost of health insurance. With no job and a family to support, I was one of them. Founding this Republic took courage and resolve. Keeping it together took courage and resolve. The ‘New Deal’ took courage and resolve. We can do the Affordable Care Act with courage and resolve. We can do this if we stay resolute in our commitment to bring reform to the healthcare nightmare facing this great country. It took Massachusetts several years to fix their ‘RomneyCare’ and get it working smoothly.
A writer who signed his name ‘WiscoJoe’ to a blog I read recently wrote:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, but then they encountered some glitches in the first couple of months of their grand experiment and decided to just give up. God save the Queen.” -Sir Abraham Lincoln
Being a cartoonist has never been easy. Sometimes a bigot will put a bullet through your window to stop you. Sometimes you’ll lose your job because others have no guts. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the effort to keep trying to make a better America. I know the feeling. The fact is that nothing good can be achieved without hard work.
Don’t give up.