Recently, I chanced to see the mindless Judy Woodruff interview the clueless Gwen Ifill on PBS about the Republican primaries, and I was reminded anew why I no longer watch TV news.
Instead, I watch ESPN, which, politically speaking, is only slightly more balanced than PBS. This weekend, given the Martin Luther King holiday, there has been much talk about race and sports.
I caught one feature on Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s lifetime home-run record, and it conveyed the same unquestioning message that all such features have conveyed now for nearly 40 years, namely that a racist America pulled all the joy out of Aaron’s pursuit.
On its website, ESPN quotes some of the letters Hank Aaron received. There is no doubt that he received them and that they troubled him deeply:
“Dear Nigger Henry, You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. … Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. … My gun is watching your every black move.”
In the 38 years since Aaron broke the record, I have never seen a single news source question the accepted narrative that these letters were sent spontaneously by American racists.
There is, however, good reason to question that narrative, starting with the Mitrokhin files. In 1992, KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Great Britain and brought with him a collection of notes he made secretly in his 30 years as a KGB archivist.
British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew summarized those notes in two books, the first of which, the “Sword and the Shield,” was published in 2000.
As Andrew relates, in 1971 then-KGB head and later Soviet Premiere Yuri Andropov personally approved a series of active measures designed “to weaken the internal cohesion of the United States and undermine its international reputation by inciting race hatred.”
This included mailing racist letters and pamphlets allegedly from right-wing American organizations like the John Birch Society and the Jewish Defense League to groups and individuals likely to be offended by them. This strategy, writes Shields, “remained part of Service A’s stock-in-trade for the remainder of the Cold War.”
Andrew cites a 1984 mailing allegedly by the Ku Klux Klan to the Olympic committees of African countries. It reads in part: “African monkeys! A grand reception awaits you in Los Angeles! We are preparing for the Olympic games by shooting at black moving targets.”
This missive, like the letter to Aaron cited above, reads like a parody of a racial threat with its over-the-top rhetoric, its animal metaphors and its threat to shoot the letter’s recipient.
In his book, Andrew does not mention Henry Aaron. I do not know whether the KGB helped shape the media narrative of Aaron’s pursuit, but I do know that American communists were mimicking the KGB strategy during those same years.
One group that did so was Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. In the way of background, Jones got hooked on Karl Marx as a college student. As Jones would relate in his memoirs, “I decided how can I demonstrate my Marxism. The thought was ‘infiltrate the church.’”
From the beginning, Jones chose to exploit America’s Achilles’ heel, racial injustice. Always charismatic, he recruited hundreds of Christian blacks and then subtly shifted their focus from Jesus to Marx, all the while reinforcing their fear of white America.
Seventeen-year-old Debbie Layton, a troubled young white woman, joined the temple in 1970, the same year Jones moved the faux church to San Francisco.
By 1970, the People’s Temple had shed all but the illusion of Christianity. “We are not really a church,” one of the leaders confided to Layton, “but a socialist organization. We must pretend to be a church so we’re not taxed by the government.”
In meetings, Jones himself made no bones about his distaste for religion. Layton remembers him explaining, “how those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought into enlightenment – socialism.”
“Free at last, free at last,” he led his temple comrades in prayer, “Thank socialism almighty we will be free at last.”
Jones had no real interest in helping black people. Although the People’s Temple had a largely black membership, the hierarchy was almost exclusively white and female, many of whom Jones had raped, Layton included.
Jones wanted to subvert race relations in America, not strengthen them. To that end, as Layton related in her memoir, he had his people write hateful, racist letters and attribute them to other white people.
Although Layton does not mention Henry Aaron, one has to wonder how many of the hate letters Aaron received during his 1973-1974 run on Ruth’s record, the majority of which had northern postmarks, came from the KGB or aspiring American Bolsheviks like Jones’ crew.
The mainstream media have had no more interest in exploring this angle than they did in exposing Jones’ flagrant Marxism. They would rather the public think of Jones as just another deranged Christian and Aaron as just another victim of American racism.
Yet, in watching the ESPN feature on Aaron, I noticed something that has gone all but unremarked. On April 4, 1974, Hank Aaron hit his record-tying 714th homer in Cincinnati, something of a border city and, in baseball terms, enemy territory. Yet when he did so, just about every one of the 50,000-plus people stood and cheered.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run at home in Atlanta, and every person I could see in those southern-fried stands leaped to his or her feet and cheered wildly.
This should have been the take-away message. It was not, and it is long past time to ask why not.