Sunday, February 24, 2013

Republican Racism Example #64: "Just Eastwooding" - Empty Chairs and Racist Republican Lawn Art

Grammar note: Throughout I use "hanged" as the past tense of "hang," which is the proper form of the verb to use when referring to the hanging of a person.  I believe it is also appropriate to use this form when referring to effigies of real people, or the empty chairs symbolizing President Barack Obama, described below. 

The Republican Party nominated an empty suit for president in 2012.  They also made an empty seat the symbol of their Democratic opponent, President Barack Obama.  In the process they spawned a craze of racist lawn art among GOP voters featuring lynched chairs.  Variations of such displays, which sprang up across the country last fall, included effigies of the president eating watermelon or figurines of Obama with the face of an ape.

The origins of many popular culture trends, such as Pet Rocks and the musical career of Vanilla Ice, are baffling.  Not so with the empty chair meme.  The birth of this icon can be dated to the minute. 

In a campaign noted for its frequent mental lapses, the Romney political machine asked famous Hollywood curmudgeon Clint Eastwood to make an unscripted speech August 30 in Tampa, Florida supporting the conservative presidential nominee.  Eastwood’s appearance happened on prime time television just minutes before Romney himself gave the climatic acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. 

Rebel Hank Williams Jr Flag 3 X 5 ft. Standard

Clint Eastwood probably seemed a safe bet as a featured convention speaker compared to other Republican celebrities like Hank Williams, Jr. (top) and Ted Nugent.  (Photos from and 

Romney’s advisers were probably just happy to find a celebrity with star power and gravitas. The pro-Republican celebrity list is slim pickings, the most outspoken GOP advocates in the entertainment industry being drunken country and western and has-been white supremacist Hank Williams, Jr. (see and  and draft-dodging, child- molesting  rock-and-roll one-hit wonder Ted Nugent (see and  Republicans were so excited about Eastwood's visit that they kept the name of the mystery guest secret that entire day.  Nevertheless, Team Romney would regret giving such massive broadcast exposure to the movie superstar.  Rather than firing up the crowd, and the TV audience, about Romney’s nomination, the Dirty Harry actor launched into a bizarre comedy routine in which he berated an empty chair he pretended was Obama.  

Channeling comedian Bob Newhart’s famous sketches in which the standup used to supply both sides of absurd phone conversations, Eastwood verbally jousted with the invisible president.  At one point Eastwood acted baffled as he responded to the unseen president.   "What did you want me to tell Romney?" Eastwood said, staring at the chair.  "I can't tell him to do that.  I can't tell him to do that to himself." In other words, the imaginary Obama told Romney to "fuck himself." (See  

 Of course, Obama is famous for his elevated dialogue and his cool temper, but Eastwood tapped into an old, racist canard that African Americans are uncouth and foul-mouthed, unable to master the manners of high civilization (an apparently widely held belief among Republicans, if Bill O’Reilly is a representative sample.  See  

 In an infamous moment from the 2012 campaign, Oscar-winning actor and director Clint Eastwood scolds an empty chair during the Republican National Convention.  The chair was supposed to represent President Barack Obama.  This bizarre performance inspired Mitt Romney supporters across the country to lynch empty chairs as part of racist lawn art. (Image from

Recalling Obama's speech in Chicago the night he won the 2008 election, Eastwood also spent his stage time at the convention ridiculing another prominent African American, Oprah Winfrey, and her reaction to the elevation of the first black president to the White House.  "[T]hey were talking about hope and change," Eastwood said said of Election Night 2008, dripping with sarcasm. ". . . And it was nice, and people were lighting candles  . . . Everybody is crying.  Oprah was crying."  It was hard to discern any point Eastwood might be making.  At one point, the 82-year-old blasted Obama for getting American troops involved in Afghanistan.  That move, of course, was made by the president's predecessor George W. Bush eight years before Obama took office.  Although the GOP's nominee's wife Ann Romney sat largely in frozen discomfort throughout Eastwood's surreal performance, and the actor seemed more inspired by senile dementia than comic genius, it didn't matter to many Republican delegates sitting in the hall.  They laughed and applauded at each vulgar mockery of the black chief executive.  (See 

The reaction outside the convention hall was less generous.  Speaking as Eastwood left the stage, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow stammered in shock for a moment.  "I don't . . .I don't know what was gong on there," the almost always eloquent political analyst remarked.  " . . . That was the weirdest thing I've ever seen at a political convention in my entire life and it will be the weirdest thing I've ever seen if I live to be 100." (See

The website Politico would be less blunt, simply calling the performance "rambling."  For most people, the Eastwood appearance became a punchline, a sign of Romney's political incompetence.  Even Eastwood admitted he had no business on the Tampa stage and seemed to mock his own candidate's decision making.   "I figure if somebody's dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention and say something, they're going to have to take what they get." (See 

The speech inspired two major cultural tropes, one that was quite entertaining and compared Eastwood to the famously cantankerous "Grandpa" character from the long-running animated series The Simpsons.  Some wit on the internet altered a still from a Simpsons episode featuring a newspaper front page photo of Grandpa Simpson with his first raised under the headline, "Old Man Yells at Cloud."  On the internet, this headline transformed to "Old Man Yelled at Chair." (See  

For those on the political left, the Eastwood speech was treated as a moment of unintentional hilarity, not a call to symbolic racial violence.  (Photo from 

If responses on the political left  to Eastwood tirade ranged from befuddlement to bemusement, the reaction on the right proved far more sinister.  There was a mean, racially-charged undertone to Eastwood's speech, with his gratuitous slap at Oprah Winfrey.  Like many white people at the Republican convention, Eastwood seemed willingly oblivious to why African Americans like her, after the horrors of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and the shooting deaths of civil rights activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., would find the election of a black man to the White House such an overwhelming moment of catharsis.  At a minimum, his mockery seemed callous.  

This white condescension was made creepier because of Eastwood's performance in the film Gran Tarino released earlier that election year. In the movie, Eastwood played a more trigger-happy version of the old TV sitcom character Archie Bunker, a slur-slinging racist with a heart of gold who takes up arms to protect his Southeast Asian neighbors.  As Salon columnist David Sirota wrote of the movie, “[Eastwood] delivers a film that hints at the bizarre fantasies of his fellow aging conservatives. Indeed, he seems to be arguing that we should not demand that bigots discard their overt prejudice because for many of them, underneath the coarse racism there is supposedly an honorable warrior who believes in truth, justice, the American Way — and racial fairness.  If only we would better understand these aging warriors, suggests Gran Torino, they might all miraculously turn into White Saviors."  Perhaps during his speech, Eastwood saw himself as a similar lovable, crusty old bigot out to save black patsies like Oprah from the cynical schemes of that ultimate urban con artist  Barack Obama. 

 How Eastwood probably saw himself during his Republican National Convention Speech. (Photo from

Out in the hinterlands, many whites didn't see any need to pretend that they were politically incorrect truthtellers out to save people of color from their own defects.  Republican racists found Eastwood's empty chair a convenient symbol  to evoke the most terrifying moments in America's racial past.  American racism had long rendered blacks as individuals invisible, as the brilliant author Ralph Ellison suggested.  After Eastwood's speech, white Republican racists hoped to make Obama not just invisible, like the unseen presence in the chair.  They hoped to make the most powerful man on Earth (who, to their despair, is black) disappear by any means necessary. Such racists began lynching empty chairs, perhaps inspired by the fantasy of murdering the president, or because they found the idea of murdering African Americans funny.

White America suffers a collective amnesia about the reign of terror aimed at their black fellow citizens from 1882, when the NAACP started compiling statistics on lynchings across the country, to roughly 1939 when the public torture and murder of African American men, women and children ceased to be a regular, and even weekly spectacle.  In that timeframe, more than 4,700 men, women and children were known to have been tortured, castrated, hanged, and burned at the stake across the United States, though the actual number of lynching victims was probably much higher.  The NAACP estimates that 72.6 percent of the lynching victims were black.

Some white Republicans last election season apparently thought lynching Obama effigies was funny. In case anyone forgets, this is what a real lynching looked like, in this case in Indiana.  (Photo from

Rightwingers started lynching images of Obama before Eastwod's speech.  In late October 2008, just before Obama won the White House the first time, students hanged an effigy made to resemble the Democratic nominee from a tree at the University of Kentucky campus at Lexington.  (See the story at  Police arrested two men, 21-year-old Hunter Bush and Joe Fisher, a 22-year-old UK senior, for disorderly conduct and related theft and burglary charges (the dummy was dressed in clothing taken from a nearby fraternity house).  A grand jury in late February 2009 dismissed the charges.  The two white men claimed they were only responding to a reports that an effigy of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin ad been hanged in Southern California. 

A lawyer for the pair, Fred Peters, ignored the significance of lynching in America's troubled racial past and suggested that the free speech rights of the defendants had been trampled on.  No one would have made a big deal of the incident, Peters claimed, if the effigy had not been of a black man.  "If they had hung Joe Biden, we would not be here," Peters claimed.  Of course, symbolically lynching a black man was exactly the point, an implied threat to not just Obama but to all African American voters. (See

A real pioneer in right wing lynching lawn art was evangelical troll Terry Jones, the reckless Florida pastor whose public burning of the Koran in March 2011 sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, resulting in at least 12 deaths.  Jones, who loves nothing more than being in front of TV cameras,  conducted the Koran burning in spite of warnings by government and military officials that the stunt could place American soldiers and civilian personnel in jeopardy overseas. (See  Jones also, in September 2012, posted on the web a badly-made film, "The Innocence of the Muslims" which, among other deliberate provocations, portrayed the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a homosexual and a pedophile.  (Anger over the film inspired attacks on American embassies and sparked riots in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Bangladesh, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan and Iraq resulting in more than 30 deaths. See and 

Pastor Terry Jones in his favorite place: in front of TV cameras. (Photo from

In June 2012, Jones hanged an effigy of Obama on the front lawn of his church, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, a protest Jones claimed was in response to the president's support of abortion rights, same sex marriage, and his alleged "appeasing of radical Islam." (See  

Pastor Terry Jones (above) of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, in 2012 symbolically murdered the president in a display gracing the front lawn of his church (Photo from 

Jones was fully aware that he was intentionally intimidating black voters with his ugly display. Jones' home base of Florida has a particularly nasty history of anti-black mob violence.  One of the most sadistic lynchings on public record, that of Claude Neal on October 26, 1934, happened in the Sunshine State.  Neal had been arrested for the rape and murder of Lola Cannidy in Marianna, Florida. A mob seized him from a jail in Brewton, Alabama, jail cell 200 miles away and dragged him back to the scene where he allegedly committed the crime.   The mob wanted an audience.  They held him in an undisclosed location while a "Committee of Six" issued a press release to local newspapers and radio stations announcing in advance the timetable for Neal's upcoming ordeal.  The statement, widely published and broadcast across the South, including the specific times certain physical torments would be inflicted.

A mob eventually numbering about 7,000 people, some arriving on specially chartered trains, arrived to witness Neal's excruciating death.  The mob castrated Neal, forced him to eat his testicles and tell the crowd he "liked it," and, while he was fully conscious, hacked off his fingers and toes and seared his flesh with hot irons before yanking him up by a noose which slowly strangled him. The frenzied crowd then riddled his corpse with bullets and tied his remains from the back of an automobile, dragging his body to the Marianna courthouse where the remains were hanged from a tree.  Body parts were put on display and photographs of the mob killing were sold for 50 cents each. (See

 A real lynching, that of Claude Neal, not far from where Terry Jones' created his gruesome display almost eight decades later. (Photo from

The lynched-Obama-effigy-as-lawn-art trend only worsened after Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention, especially in the last days of the 2012 presidential race when it became increasingly clear that the president might win a second term.  By mid-September, Bud Johnson displayed a lynched empty chair dangling from a tree in his front yard in the northwest corner of Austin, Texas.  As Katherine Haenschen of the Burnt Orange Report website noted, this display was particularly disgraceful in Texas:

"Lynching was a horrific and commonplace act in Reconstruction-era Texas and continued until the mid-1940's, spurred on by Ku Klux Klan groups. Texas is third amongst all states -- behind Mississippi and Georgia -- in the total number of lynching victims between 1885 and 1942. Of those 468 victims, an overwhelming number were African-American.
Perhaps the most well-known and horrific lynching in Texas occurred in 1916, when Jesse Washington was accused of raping and murdering a woman near Waco. He was sentenced to death, and lynched in front of a crowd of onlookers, after which members of the mob castrated him, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. Pieces of his body were sold as souvenirs. The gruesome event became part of the NAACP's anti-lynching movement.  
Most recently, in 1998, James Byrd Jr. -- for whom the Texas Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named -- was lynched by being dragged behind a vehicle in East Texas."

When Haenschen called Johnson to ask him about his art project and expressed her concerns as a fellow citizen of Austin, the Central Texas Republican reacted with predictable class. "I don't really give a damn whether it disturbs you or not. You can take [your concerns] and go straight to hell and take Obama with you. I don't give a shit. If you don't like it, don't come down my street." 

Johnson, who won a "Yard of the Month" award from his neighborhood association in August 2010, later added an American flag to the lawn art.  Johnson, we're supposed to assume, loves America, even if he hates all his black neighbors.  (See and  

White supremacist Austin Republican Bud Johnson lynched an empty chair in his front yard last September in reference to Clint Eastwood's senile standup routine at the RNC.  His later addition of an American flag to the display was supposed to make the crude exhibit more patriotic. (Photo from  

Around the same time, Douglas Burger, another Republican, hanged empty chairs decorated with a "Nobama" sign" at his home in Centreville, Va.  The residence is within spitting distance of a public park.  Incredibly, Burger claimed that the chair was tied to a tree branch because "otherwise people would steal them."  He denied there was any racial overtone to the display, saying, "It just Eastwooding."  (See and 

Another dumb, bigoted lynched chair display, this time by Virginia Republican Douglas Burger in the town of Centreville.   Many Republicans compensate for their mindless intolerance by also being completely unoriginal.   (Photo from

In early October 2012, Morgan Hill, Ca., Republican Blake La Beck, placed an empty chair on a fence post in his front yard.  He festooned the chair with a watermelon, in reference to racist stereotypes about black dietary habits, a noose, and a sign that said, "Go Back To Kenya you Idiot" (sic.)"   The last commentary was in reference to the racist belief that Obama is an illegal immigrant from Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and therefore is not eligible to serve as president.  (See my previous post, "That Whole Stupid Birther Thing" at  Nearby sat a "Mitt Romney for President" sign.  (See and 

Blake La Beck's racist lawn art in Morgan Hill, Ca.  (Photo from

We shouldn't blame all the hateful Republican art exhibits on Eastwood. Not every GOP Klan-inspired yard installation featured empty chairs. The lynching meme, however, was extremely popular among Republicans last year and one traveling exhibit carried the bullying message directly to polling places. V.R. Phipps, of Duplin County, N.C., traveled from one early voting place to another in a trailer, setting up displays featuring lynched effigies of public officials including former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue and Obama. (See

V.R. Phipps of North Carolina proudly posted a YouTube video of his traveling exhibit of lynched public figure effigies, including one of President Barack Obama.  (Photo from

Perhaps someone someday should collect  the GOP racist lawn art created between 2010 and 2013  and put in a a central exhibit about a bitter, out-of-touch major political party in its dying days .  The curator for such a show could include  the creation of Danny Hefley, the Casey County Kentucky man who this past December celebrated Obama's re-election by exhibiting in his front yard an Obama mannequin eating a watermelon.

Predictably, Hefley denied that he was expressing racism and said he was unaware that black people are stereotyped as liking watermelons.  Hefley claimed he included the watermelon because the Obama figure "might get hungry standing out there."  Hefley also insisted that the display was "popular" among his Kentucky neighbors. No doubt. (See and

Danny Hefley of Casey County, Kentucky, participates in the post-election Republican "outreach" to people of color with this artwork. (Photo from

As has been pointed out repeatedly in this blog, Republican racists don't lurk on the margins.  Some of the crudest racism expressed by members of the Grand Old Party has spring from the minds of successful business owners, columnists, major media figures, and politicians from the city level to the halls of Congress.  For instance, there's the case of former Cedar Grove, N.J. city council member and police officer Rick Bond, who in August 2012 demonstrated his commitment to diversity by placing a statue of a monkey wearing a t-shirt that said "OMG -- Obama Must Go" in front of the Don-Ric Self Storage business he owns.  Bond (pretending to be surprised that some would see portraying an African American president as a monkey as racist) insisted, "I absolutely never thought of it as racial.  It's ridiculous."

As Thomas Reynolds, the president of the nearby Montclair NAACP chapter pointed out, "It's incredible to think that somebody would have put up a statue of a monkey with a white man in the White House and I hope the person would take a second look at the messages he's putting out." In spite of his claim of innocence, Bond removed the statue when people in the community began complaining.  (See and

Rick Bond, a former Cedar Grove, N.J., city council member, said he was shocked when people suggested his statue of Obama depicted as a monkey was racist. "I absolutely never thought of it as racist," he said.  (Photo from

Fortunately, in the United States, there's a powerful watchdog media staffed by courageous liberals who aren't afraid that they'll be called "biased" if they call out Republicans on their explicit racism.  Well, maybe in a bizarre alternate universe.  In mid-October an Ohio Republican put together one of the most elaborate Obama lynching effigies seen during last election season.  It featured a dummy made up like Obama, complete with demonic horns, dangling by a noose from a tree.  Meanwhile, a Romney dummy was seen driving a tractor near a "Romney-Ryan 2012" yard sign

(That part of the lawn art, it can be assumed, was supposed to represent Romney as a hard-working white man, a symbol contrasted with the lazy "nigger" swinging from a rope nearby.  Romney, of course, earned his money the old-fashioned way: by wisely picking a wealthy man and woman as his parents.  Romney then expanded his fortunate as a a venture capitalist shipping the jobs of hardworking Americans to low-wage capitalist paradises like the People's Republic of China).

Obviously, the well-educated, truth-seeking men and woman of the press would, in reporting on this lawn art, comment on it's over-the-top negrophobia.  A Cleveland, Ohio Fox News affiliate, 19 Action News, ran a photo of the yard display on its Facebook page.  The folks at Channel 19 pulled no punches.  They bravely described the symbolic Obama lynching as a "creative yard display."  (See

As a popularly misattributed quote of the English philosopher Edmund Burke puts it, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."  We might add, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for cowards, with the power to shape public opinion, to not state the obvious."

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001.  (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

  1. I have a photo of some "lawn art" from a house we drove by in Virginia and of course the infamous Obama billboard from West Pains, MO. Not sure how how to share them with you, but they are definitely relevant to your post.