The problem is that, when there is large-scale cultural fragmentation, different groups of people not only may adopt varying sets of “facts,” they often interpret the same set of shared facts in radically different ways.
A clear example occurred last week at the conclusion of the most recent mass meeting held to protest the August 5 county election results. Disbelief was directed not only at the results of that election, which saw Republicans win all the contested partisan races save one , but at authority figures in general — indeed at authority itself.
The Commercial Appeal, which often comes in for abuse across the political spectrum, from left to right, was predictably condemned as a tool of the establishment. This was perhaps understandable in the sense that the CA had, like other media, reported the unwelcome election news and could therefore be blamed by dissenters for reinforcing it.
As it happened, the CA had also, during the preceding week, reported the extraordinary news that legendary civil rights photographer Ernest Withers had been an undercover informant for the FBI, spying on the movement and its personalities even as he chronicled them.
So the exhaustively documented investigative article by Marc Perrusquia came in for skepticism to the point that it, too, was denounced by a speaker or two as a fiction while Withers was characterized as yet another victim of a lying power establishment.
Here’s the intriguing part: One of the attendees at last week’s protest meeting was Dr. Suhkara A. Yahweh, a well-known activist who wears African garb and concerns himself with community affairs, especially those of the African American community, speaking at meetings of the city council or county commission and often intervening in court cases, as in the ongoing voting-rights issue, with briefs of his own.
A generation or two ago, Yahweh — an adopted surname identical to that used by scholars as an alternate transliteration of “Jehovah” — was known by another name: Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson.
Watson was a major figure in the Invaders, a black action group that was active at the time of the 1968 sanitation strike and one which, the CA article showed, Withers had filed numerous reports on. Watson himself, referred to in one of the photographer’s reports as a “phony,” had been the subject of intense scrutiny.
So, when last week’s meeting was over and he was asked about all those invasions of his privacy, what did Watson/Wine/Yahweh have to say about them? Basically, that they never happened. Or that, if they happened, they were not voluntary — that, if Withers gave information to the FBI, it was coerced and unreliable: a purposeful misdirection, in short.
Yahweh offered an explanation identical to that which is featured in an article published last Thursday in the Tri-State Defender.
The article, based on an interview conducted by the newspaper with two surviving sons of Ernest Withers, describes a situation in which men — apparently agents but never precisely identified as such — forcibly entered the photographer’s studio in 1968 as he, assisted by sons Rome and Billy, was working on deadline for the TSD. The intruders are described as scattering some photographs and demanding that Withers identify the people in them.
The TSD article offers this description of Yahweh’s reaction to the story:
“What happens if the FBI comes to him and he is a photographer and say(s), “Let me see those pictures you took down in Mississippi. Who is this person here? Who is this person there….You’ve got to tell them who they are,” said Yahweh.
“They say Ok, we’ll give you 200 dollars for those pictures. Now, what are you doing? You are paying him to inform you who the people are on the pictures.”
That is essentially what Yahweh, surrounded by other closely listening attendees of the voter protest meeting, told the Flyer last Thursday night.
And that version, along with the distinctly different interpretation of the August 5 election results, may come to take its place in the larger alternate reality now developing in sections of the African-American community — one totally at odds with how the mainstream sees things.