The Case of Goodloe Sutton
It was unavoidable that we in Alabama would have to answer, in some way, when the world caught wind of Goodloe Sutton’s recent editorial proclaiming that the Ku Klux Klan should descend on Washington DC. And it was inevitable in this era of social media that the world would indeed catch wind of it.
I first read about “Klan needs to ride again” in an article about it in the Montgomery Advertiser, my local paper. Sutton’s pro-Klan editorial isn’t very long, and its logic is not terribly difficult to defeat. On the most basic level, the word “ideology” is misspelled (as “idealogy”) in a sentence calling some people “ignorant,” “uneducated” and “simple-minded,” and the piece vaguely demeans people who supposedly “do not understand the constitution.” And while I’m not a regular reader of the Democrat-Reporter, I have read in recent days that similar sentiments do appear in that newspaper from time to time.
As the long-time editor-publisher of the Democrat-Reporter newspaper in the small town of Linden in western Alabama, Goodloe Sutton has been a fixture in the Black Belt for longer than most Alabamians have been alive. In the mid-1960s, he took over the newspaper from his father Robert E. Sutton, Jr., who ran it from 1917 until 1965. (His father was also mayor of Linden and a member of the House of Representatives.) I’m not going to make any effort to defend the ideas that Sutton expressed recently – I disagree with him completely – but would like to say that neither he nor his work should be reduced to one outrageous editorial. In addition to this insta-famous rant, he was nominated for an environmental award in 1981 for using his newspaper to educate forest landowners in the area, and in the summer of 1998, Sutton exposed the sheriff of Marengo County for pocketing public funds. By contrast, al.com’s JD Crowe had this to say about Sutton:
He may have always been a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot, but his editorials have gotten steadily more brazen in the last few years. You get the feeling if he didn’t have the newspaper, he’d be walking around town in his underwear yelling at strangers, women and children.
Sutton’s February 14, 2019 editorial rightly drew ire, chagrin, and swift condemnation, which included a denouncement from Sen. Doug Jones and professional excommunication from the Alabama Press Association. The nation quickly hyper-focused on this short editorial, got offended, and shouted intense calls for his resignation, an onslaught that few people could withstand. The outcry succeeded, of course, and Goodloe Sutton handed over leadership of the Democrat-Reporter to someone else on February 21, a week into his dubious bout with global infamy.
Unlike many of the pundits, real and self-appointed, who now hold Sutton up as their target of the moment, I’ve actually been to Linden and know a few people from there. I’m no expert, but my experience with Alabama’s Black Belt extends further than a tweet I saw last week. And what I know is this: when the nation is through spewing venom at this small-town newspaper man, the situation in Linden will not have changed much. Back in 2011, the Tuscaloosa News called “Linden, a town divided by race,” and the evidence to support that assertion included this:
At Linden High, the only public high school in the city, there are 196 students and not one of them is white. Two miles south of Main Street is the private school, Marengo Academy. Of the 205 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade there, none are black.
As a person interested in real societal progress, these swirling tirades against individuals concern me. There are a bigger issues to consider than the humming masses on social media seem capable of, before they move on to the next victim. I’d rather take a moment to consider and discuss why Sutton wrote these things, what circumstances caused him to have these ideas, what effect he has on his community, what effect the global exposure of his position can achieve, and how we can assist communities like Linden that are geographically isolated, racially divided, and economically struggling. Rather than moving on after Sutton’s fall, I hope we will use this opportunity to address attitudes and actions like his, which are both divisive and unproductive, and which affect real people. Because, if we choose instead to attack one person after another, venting our spleens in visceral terms on the individual offenders, picking them off then fizzling out . . . these questionably righteous ideological tornadoes that fling absolutism and zero-tolerance in every direction won’t be much more than, as William Shakespeare put it, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”