Senator Zell Miller
Mr. President, I rise this morning — and I appreciate the generosity of the Senator from Utah and the Senator from Vermont in giving me this opportunity — to get something off my chest.
CBS Television is currently planning what that great company calls "a hillbilly reality show." I would like to say a few words about that as a Senator who happens to be a hillbilly.
I can call myself that, Mr. President, but please don't you call me that, for "hillbilly" is a term of derision that was first coined in April of 1900 when the New York Journal had an article on "Hill Billies" with this description:
A free and untrammeled white citizen who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it and fires off his revolver as his fancy strikes him.
The description has not improved very much over the past 100 years. White minstrel shows depicting these ignorant creatures played to laughing audiences in New York and Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s.
After a man named Al Capp saw one, he dreamed up the comic strip "Li'l Abner" who lived in a place called Dogpatch with a mama who smoked a pipe and a girlfriend named Daisy Mae who ran around barefooted and half naked. It was a riot, and it made Al Capp a fortune.
A short time later, Snuffy Smith, a wife abuser with his ever-present jug of moonshine, also appeared in comic strips around the Nation. Then came Ma and Pa Kettle in the movies and the Beverly Hillbillies on television. Even the contemporary poet and author James Dickey has contributed to this false image of mountain people by portraying them as depraved cretins in his popular book and movie "Deliverance."
My neighbors and I have lived with this ridicule and overdrawn stereotype all of our lives, as did our parents and their parents before them. My roots run very deep in the Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia where I was born and raised and always have made my home. It is where my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren live today.
My ancestors were among the very first mountain settlers. They were descendants of the Scotch-Irish who were driven out of Northern Ireland by the Stuart Kings. They landed in Maryland and Virginia and migrated westward as far as the hostile Indians and French would allow, and then moved southward into the heart of a region of rugged mountains and beautiful valleys we now know as Appalachia.
They were accompanied and followed by the Huguenots, Pennsylvania Quakers, Palatine Germans, and various dissatisfied Protestant sects.
These mountain people were the very first Americans to fall back on their own resources as they settled in isolation from the remainder of the Nation and the world.
Their language, customs, character, possessions, knowledge, and tools were isolated with them and suspended in time, an unchanging microcosm of early American thought, culture, and mores.
These mountaineers possessed the qualities that formed the fundamental elements of pioneer American character: love of liberty, personal courage, a capacity to withstand and overcome hardship, unstinted hospitality, intense family loyalty, innate humor, and trust in God.
It could be said that if they had one overriding characteristic, it would have to be independence. They developed as extreme, rugged individualists who never closed their doors, had inherent self-respect, were honest and shrewd, knew no grades of society, and had unconscious and unspoiled dignity. They were utterly without pretension or hypocrisy.
When the Civil War came along, it was this area of the Mountain South that opposed secession, for there were no vast plantations in the mountains of the South and very few slave owners among those poor people. Some even fought on the side of the Union, with families sometimes divided over that terrible conflict.
Later, when the wars of the 20th century came along, it was the families in the mountains of the South who sent a disproportionate share of their young men who volunteered to fight in distant lands, far away from their peaceful valleys.
When this country was threatened to be torn apart over Watergate, it was two great Members of this Senate from opposite parties but the same part of the country who helped keep this Nation on an even keel: Democrat Sam Ervin from the mountains of North Carolina and Republican Howard Baker from the mountains of Tennessee.
I am very pleased and proud that these are my people, and I find that one of the great ironies of history is that while the cowboy, another type of frontiersman, has been glorified, the mountaineer — the first frontiersman — has been ridiculed and caricatured in the image of a Snuffy Smith.
Why am I going into all of this? Because now in the 21st century — the enlightened 21st century — there are plans underway for a new hillbilly minstrel show using the same old stereotype, denigrating, laughing at, and ridiculing this group of people.
CBS calls it a reality show — CBS, the once proud and honorable broadcasting company that brought us Edward R. Murrow and that unforgettable program of his, "The Harvest of Shame."
In the sixties, brave and courageous CBS reporters risked their lives to cover the civil rights struggles in the South, and for decades, CBS's "60 Minutes" has set the standard for all of television. But today in this money-grubbing world, CBS, it seems, has become just another money-grubber.
It is now part of the giant Viacom. CBS has a CEO named Mr. Les Moonves, the man who is pushing this program-to-be; a man who obviously believes that network television is an ethics-free zone and that it is acceptable for big profits to always come ahead of good taste.
I do not know Mr. Moonves, but from his actions, it seems he is a person who cares little about human dignity and believes television has no social responsibility. I suppose we should not be surprised, for his ilk have been around long before the creators of Li'l Abner and Snuffy Smith. Since the beginning of civilization, there have always been some homo sapiens who, it seems, had to have someone to look down upon some group to feel superior. For this kind of person, it is as basic to their human nature as the drive to reproduce or the urge for food and water. They were there in the time of the Greeks. They were there in the time of the Romans. They can be found all through the Bible. That is what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about.
Jesus was very concerned about how the rejects of society were looked down upon and warned us about "a haughty spirit" and an "unkind heart."
Shakespeare wrote about them as did Dickens and Steinbeck and Faulkner. And songwriter Merle Haggard, who knew personally how it felt, wrote that memorable line "another class of people put us somewhere just below, one more reason for my mama's Hungry Eyes."
This country was not meant to be this way. We are supposed to be better than that. More than two centuries ago, Moses Sexius was the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI.
He wrote hopefully to the President of this new Nation of his delight at the birth of a government "which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affords to all liberty of conscience."
That new President, George Washington, wrote back.
Here is a copy if the letter affirming that the Government of the United States "would give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." That was Washington's dream for this country.
What CBS and CEO Moonves proposed to do with this Cracker Comedy is "bigotry" pure and simple. Bigotry for big bucks. They will deny it. They will say it is just harmless humor. But they know better and they feel safe.
They know the only minority left in this country that you can make fun of, demean, humiliate, put down and hardly anyone will speak up in their defense are hillbillies in particular and poor rural people in general. You can ridicule them with impunity.
Can you imagine this kind of program being suggested that would disrespect an African American family or denigrate a Latino family? Years ago, the program Amos and Andy was removed from television — as it should have been — because it was in poor taste and made fun of a minority.
In this wonderful and diverse country today, one of every six Americans speaks some other language other than English in their homes. In my home State of Georgia, their number has more than doubled in the past decade. I believe that may be the largest increase in the Nation.
From the red clay hills of Georgia to the redwood forests of California, all of us are struggling to answer the simple question: Can't we all get along?
And that daunting challenge, can't we live our lives as if we are all created equal? All of us: we eat, we sleep, we have strengths and weaknesses; we have dreams and anxieties. A tear knows no race, no religion, no color. A tear has no accent. We all cry in the same language.
Many years ago, the rabbis were asked why was it that in the beginning God created just one man, Adam, and one woman, Sa-ba, or Eve. Surely, God could have created multitudes.
The rabbis answered that only one man and one woman were created to help us all remember that we all came from the same mother and father. So no one should ever say, "I'm better than you," and no one should ever feel, "I'm less than you."
CBS, Viacom, Mr. Moonves: I plead with you to call off your hillbilly hunt. Make your big bucks some other way. Appeal to the best in America, not the worst. Give bigotry no sanction.
For no one — not even a rich and powerful network like CBS — should ever use the airwaves of this Nation to say to one group of people in God's image, "We're better than you."
And no one, Mr. Moonves, no one should ever be made to feel, "they're less than you."
I yield the floor.
[Taken from the Congressional Record, 25 February 2003, pages S2626-27.]