A human piece of Jacksonville history died recently, and while somebody paid to bury him, nobody would claim him. The Nov. 13 obituary for Warren Folks, long the city’s most vocal (if not virulent) racist, listed no survivors, friends or mourners. The closest anyone came to a public embrace of the man was a lengthy comment on the Times-Union’s website by someone posting under the name “Tarantula” who claimed to know Folks well. He was, in the poster’s words, “a racist. Period.”
“Sugarcoat it all you want, but Mr. Folks believed that ‘blacks were no better than animals,’ that ‘the Jews had the Holocaust coming to them’ and that ‘queers were an abomination of the Bible.’”
Warren Folks died penniless and, for at least some of his final years, homeless, having been kicked out of his subsidized senior apartment complex for racist attacks on fellow residents. But his sorry demise on the margins belies the central role he once played in the city’s narrative. A sometime barber and full-time limelight chaser, Folks ran for elected office numerous times — including once for governor, as Warren “White” Folks. He owned a downtown barbershop where he distributed KKK literature, and he commemorated the 1960 mob attack on black protestors known as Ax Handle Saturday with an actual ax handle hung on the wall. According to Civil Rights author Rodney Hurst, he called it his “nigger intimidator.”
In light of Folks’ lonely and impoverished demise at the age of 91, it may be hard for some to envision just how dominant his persona — and his views — were; how much he influenced the local conversation. Nasty, crazy people are everywhere, of course, but gaining a foothold in legitimate discussions of race, as Folks did, requires both persistence and the acquiescence — or tacit endorsement — of the larger community. Folks was a frequent presence in the newspaper, a vocal part of the city’s school desegregation debate and a kind of pre “Crossfire”-era voice of the opposition.
We like to think we’ve evolved in the past several decades, and in some very visible ways, we have. But the city’s intractable racist subclass continues to hold microphone. Witness last year’s “debate” over appointing a Muslim to a volunteer city board, in which City Councilmember Don Redman asked the distinguished professor “to say a prayer to your god” like he was some kind of circus freak. (If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the video, see it again for the first time http://bit.ly/yourgod) The incident elicited broad criticism, and ultimately drew an apology from Redman, but it didn’t change the fact that he remains one of 19 elected lawmakers representing our fair city (in addition to also being a barber, as it happens).
Such incidents don’t happen in a vacuum. The city whose lawmakers can’t abide the Muslim faith is also home to a high school named for a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (http://on.msnbc.com/vGfj85). And it’s the same place where the announcement that the local NFL team was being purchased by a man hailing from — get this — a foreign country sparked not just a tidal wave of racism and xenophobia, but a second wave of national news coverage about exactly that. To be fair, that was followed by a third wave of defenders, apologists and ad hoc Khan enthusiasts, who lined up to offer a formal, somewhat stilted “welcome” to the prospective team owner. Their message: Our community welcomes you, and your adorable mustache. So please don’t take our team away.
Whether you believe the soul of this city is revealed in the first reaction or the ensuing apologies, it’s impossible to claim that what occurred was insignificant. TV anchors at First Coast News broke with their format to publicly chastise the haters in a “Sounding Off” segment. (“I watched some of those comments come in on Facebook and Twitter,” Donna Deegan told co-host Shannon Ogden, “and I just could feel my whole chest just getting tight.” http://fcnews.tv/uyq52T) Other stations handled the story more obliquely, but with clear disdain. (In a lead-in to a story about “fan reaction” to the sale, News4Jax reporter Jennifer Waugh cautioned, “We want to warn you: Some of what you are about to see and hear may be offensive.” http://bit.ly/ubGMHG.) Just as telling, the url for a News4Jax story revealed the station’s decision to prohibit comments: news4jax.com/news/No-Commenting/New-Jaguars-owner-focus-of-jokes-slurs …)
People are of two minds when it comes to dealing with racism. Do you bear witness, or do you ignore it and hope it goes away? If Warren Folks taught us anything, it’s that bigotry and ignorance have amazing staying power. Individual racists may die their lonely deaths, but until Jacksonville purges its institutions of the symbols of intolerance — until Don Redman and Nathan Bedford Forest alike are repudiated by the community — Folks’ legacy will live on.