The Rap­pa­han­nock res­i­dent who de­feated white su­prem­a­cist David Duke

‘Peo­ple mis­take him for just be­ing a ya­hoo. But he’s ed­u­cated, he’s very ar­tic­u­late, and he’s very clever’

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By JoHn Mc­caSLin Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

Last Satur­day, one day after a closely watched Char­lottesville judge an­nounced it would take him sev­eral more weeks to rule on the le­gal stand­ing of Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues and other pub­lic Civil War memo­ri­als in that city, Old Hol­low res­i­dent J. Ben­nett John­ston re­called the un­likely mo­ment in his­tory when he and white na­tion­al­ist and for­mer Ku Klux Klans­man David Duke went head-to-head.

The year was 1990, and John­ston, who at­tended Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity and the United States Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point, was a well-sea­soned and pop­u­lar Demo­cratic U.S. sen­a­tor, first elected by Louisianans in 1972 to rep­re­sent the Bayou State on Capi­tol Hill.

And then along came Duke, an­nounc­ing to Louisianans and the en­tire coun­try that he was op­pos­ing John­ston as a Repub­li­can, al­beit with­out the en­dorse­ment of the GOP lead­er­ship. Se­nior Repub­li­can Se­na­tors Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, Wil­liam Co­hen and Nancy Kasse­baum, to name sev­eral, along with for­mer con­gress­man-turned-HUD Sec­re­tary Jack Kemp, took the highly un­usual step of en­dors­ing a Demo­crat for the U.S. Se­nate — in this case the in­cum­bent John­ston.

To the sur­prise of many po­lit­i­cal ob­servers, the race turned out to be John­ston’s clos­est ever for re-elec­tion (he gar­nered 53.9 per­cent of the vote). Now, peo­ple on op­pos­ing sides are pay­ing close at­ten­tion to Duke all over again after the ar­guably elo­quent for­mer KKK grand wizard reared his sep­a­ratist head in Char­lottesville last month, march­ing with his ilk in sup­port of white

supremacy.

“He is so clever,” the re­tired sen­a­tor says of Duke from his home bor­der­ing Shenan­doah Na­tional Park. “Peo­ple mis­take him for just be­ing a ya­hoo. But he’s ed­u­cated, he’s very ar­tic­u­late, and he’s very clever. And you’ll prob­a­bly hear some more from him.”

So was the so-called Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville any dif­fer­ent from past marches and ral­lies by the white sep­a­ratist move­ment?

“Yes, of course it’s dif­fer­ent,” John­ston replies, re­call­ing as cur­rent back­drops the string of po­lice-in­volved shoot­ings of blacks, and the bloody mas­sacre two years ago at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Charleston, S.C., when as the sen­a­tor puts it Dy­lann Roof took the Con­fed­er­ate flag and “made it a sym­bol” of hate and ter­ror­ism.

“This has made for a very toxic sit­u­a­tion,” he says. “So along comes the [Con­fed­er­ate] mon­u­ments and it’s quite easy to equate those to the Con­fed­er­ate flag and all of that. And these Duke peo­ple are look­ing for a cause. You know David Duke has al­ways been like that.”

The cause in 1990, of course, was to un­seat the vet­eran John­ston and in do­ing so claim a pow­er­ful seat in the hal­lowed halls of Congress.

“I thought it was go­ing to ac­tu­ally be a lot of fun, be­cause I was go­ing to be the guy on the white horse with all of the quote ‘good peo­ple’ un­quote ral­ly­ing to my cause,” John­ston points out. “But I found that there was a huge re­sent­ment for lib­er­als, black peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly with af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion . . .

“They had a demon­stra­tion against me on the court­house square in Shreve­port when I was run­ning against Duke and of course they had the Con­fed­er­ate flag out there along with their hoods.”

None of the sev­eral hun­dred mainly young white males were hid­ing be­hind hoods when they de­scended on the col­lege town of Char­lottesville in August, chant­ing loudly while march­ing in torch­light pro­ces­sion, “You will not re­place us! “Jews will not re­place us!”

The rally, pur­port­edly to protest the city’s pro­posed re­moval of a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee, re­sulted in three deaths, scores of in­juries and the gover­nor of Vir­ginia declar­ing a state of emer­gency.

Since then, Char­lottesville Cir­cuit Court Judge Richard Moore has been weigh­ing whether a 1997 amend­ment to Vir­ginia law pro­tects Lee’s statue and other city war memo­ri­als. His de­ci­sion, ex­pected in the com­ing weeks, could have im­pli­ca­tions statewide and for that mat­ter wind up be­fore a higher court.

“Of course the mon­u­ments are not nearly quite the is­sue of the Con­fed­er­ate flag,” John­ston opines. “I mean, after all, it was the bat­tle flag and is the sym­bol of re­bel­lion — and [to­day] not just re­bel­lion, but of the Ku Klux kind of peo­ple who take that [as their sym­bol].”

The for­mer sen­a­tor says he’s come to re­al­ize, par­tic­u­larly after the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, that “there is that factor of peo­ple who will vote in protest to show their anger, to show their dis­agree­ment, but don’t want to ad­mit it. . . .

“And David Duke or oth­ers can sum­mon up those [peo­ple] if they are clever, and those same peo­ple can, with the right kind of lead­er­ship, be brought around and made to feel like they’re [av­er­age] Amer­i­cans — you know, we’re both fight­ing in the same war to­gether.

“In this case it was events that brought peo­ple to­gether, and lead­er­ship can do it as well,” John­ston con­tin­ues. “One of the rea­sons for Barack Obama’s great at­trac­tion was his speech that said there’s no black Amer­ica, there’s no white Amer­ica, there’s no red Amer­ica. We are all Amer­i­cans.

“And I think that kind of ap­peal will help bring us to­gether. That’s one thing I so hate about Char­lottesville and the mon­u­ments’ [con­tro­versy] is it re­ally tends to di­vide and tends to sort of make out south­ern­ers as be­ing bad peo­ple, big­oted, etcetera . . .

“I think given a lit­tle time . . . lo­cal peo­ple need to de­cide [on the mon­u­ments] and they will. And they will come around in Shreve­port. They ap­pointed a [cit­i­zen ad­vi­sory] com­mis­sion and the lat­est, by I think one vote, is we’re go­ing to study a way to keep [that city’s Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment] and tell the story. Oth­ers will do dif­fer­ently.”

The Shreve­port mon­u­ment in John­ston’s home­town, which stands just out­side the parish court­house, fea­tures a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier and four South­ern gen­er­als: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jack­son, P.G.T. Beau­re­gard, and Henry Watkins Allen, the lat­ter also a gover­nor of Louisiana.

Shreve­port of­fi­cials this sum­mer con­vened four pub­lic meet­ings to gauge opin­ion about the mon­u­ment, with the re­sults weighed by the cit­i­zen ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee.

Last Satur­day, while in the town of Wash­ing­ton, the for­mer sen­a­tor vis­ited the 20-foot mon­u­ment erected on the court­house lawn in honor of Rap­pa­han­nock’s fallen Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers.

“Look­ing at the mon­u­ment there, in my judg­ment, there’s no rea­son to take that down,” says John­ston, who re­tired from the Se­nate in 1997 after 25 years. “It is to the fallen — sons of this area who fell in com­bat, who I’ll bet there wasn’t a slave owner among them.”

“Look­ing at the mon­u­ment there, in my judg­ment, there’s no rea­son to take that down,” says John­ston, who re­tired from the Se­nate in 1997 after 25 years. “It is to the fallen — sons of this area who fell in com­bat, who I’ll bet there wasn’t a slave owner among them.”

BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

J. Ben­nett John­ston at his Old Hol­low home.

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