As I live in Kingman, Arizona, and have a bit of a reputation in the
international Route 66 community, the recent Sacha Baron Cohen attempt at comedy has been the subject of countless emails, text messages, and Facebook messages. I didn’t watch the program, and didn’t even listen to more than a few random minutes of the video. I didn’t need to. It was obvious that he merely supplied the rope, and then let his victims hang themselves.
I am not sure what I found more disgusting, the displays of blatant prejudice from my adopted hometown, or the fact that in America today a man can profit from inciting lynch mobs, yelling fire in a crowded theater, and selling used cars at the scene of a bloody accident by labeling it “comedy” or “entertainment.” There is so much good and positive in Kingman, including a large segment of the population, but once again the town has been given a black eye that will take a long time to heal. After all, we are still remembered as a town where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh found a nest of like minded people and even a partner in crime.
Unfortunately Kingman’s reputation as a haven for bigots and people so narrow minded they can look down a beer bottle with both eyes is deeply rooted, and to a degree well deserved. A research project conducted by Warren Hill that was confirmed by several sources noted that in 1916, property deeds often had a clause that stipulated “that the transferee and his heirs not permit Africans, Chinese, Japanese or Indians to acquire the property or Occupy.” However, in all fairness it should also be noted that between 1910 and 1960, in communities all along the Route 66 corridor, prejudices were openly, and even proudly displayed. Often prejudices, as they always will, turned violent.
The East St. Louis Massacre occurred in May and July 1917. Conservative estimates are that at least 250 African-American people were killed, 6,000 were left homeless, and in 1917 dollars, there was approximately $400,000 in property damage. Carlos Hurd, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that had become a celebrity of sorts after writing a series of interviews with survivors of the R.M.S. Titanic sinking chronicled the event in a lengthy first person feature article.
“The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” Hurd wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a n*****’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get anoth
Hugh L. Wood, a reporter for the St. Louis Republic, was quoted in The Crisis: “A Negro weighing 300 pounds came out of the burning line of dwellings just north and east of the Southern freight home. . . . ‘Get him!’ they cried. So a man in the crowd clubbed his revolver and struck the Negro in the face with it. Another dashed an iron bolt between the Negro’s eyes. Still another stood near and battered him with a rock. Then the giant Negro tumbled to the ground. . . . A girl stepped up and struck the bleeding man with her foot. The blood spurted onto her stockings and men laughed and grunted.”
This was not an isolated incident in these years. Read about the horrendous carnage of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, or the riots in Springfield, Illinois. And don’t forgot, The Negro Travelers Green Book was a necessity for a large portion of our population well into the late 1950s. It should be noted that Kingman had one property listed in this travel guide, the White Rock Court, a motel built by a Russian immigrant, but many communities had none.
In my forthcoming book I focus on the dark side of Route 66, including tales of racial prejudice made manifest in violence and mayhem. One thing that I learned in my research was that compared to many communities along this storied old highway, Kingman was a haven of tolerance.
For prejudice to thrive it needs ignorance, it needs a shroud of legitimacy and respect, and it needs a group of people who can be made scapegoats for the ills of society. Contrary to what you may have seen in this hit piece by Sacha Baron Cohen, Kingman, Arizona is a town in transition. There are many, many good and caring people here that are working hard to build a modern, progressive community where people are judged on merit rather than ethnicity, and to move beyond the reputation for bigotry and prejudice.
A key component in this transition is Route 66. The narrow world view of an isolated rural community that is fertile ground for the seeds of prejudice can’t survive in a town where daily people from all corners of the globe stop for lunch or a beer, join in festivals, or rub elbows in the coffee shop. Don’t let the likes of Cohen keep you from discovering the wonders, and good people, of Kingman, or Tucumcari, or Elk City. Simply accept the fact that just like your home town, Kingman, Tucumcari, or Elk City has its share of folks who are possessed of an over inflated sense of superiority, the type of folks that keep people like Cohen supplied with fodder for his form of bigotry.