The Fight for Equality is Rarely Easy
A Review of Diane Chamberlain’s The Last House on the Street
I’ve written about my personal political journey from right-of-center to liberal a few times in the past (here is the most recent), but it’s something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately.
When I began to make that transition during the 2016 elections, and particularly after I got to the point of feeling comfortable with the label of “liberal” shortly after the 2018 midterms, I noticed an obvious shift in the way some people saw me — and how they treated me, as a result.
Where before I was primarily defined as a mom, a creative, and a helper, I suddenly became “the other” in a small community that does not always receive outsiders well.
It’s not that I’ve ever been particularly popular — my insecurities in that regard come up from time to time in my adult life — but being actively ostracized is something entirely different.
Last summer, I wrote about my experience of being the subject of contention in a local community service organization where I was invited to speak about voting. While that situation ultimately worked out for the most part, it definitely wasn’t the first or the last time I was excluded, ridiculed, or otherwise pushed to the edges simply for my political views and my vocalness about them.
As a rule, people don’t like to have their views challenged.
They really don’t like being told that they’re wrong, no matter how considerately it’s handled.
These are both things that were made abundantly clear when I began to question the political opinions of those around me and call out misinformation and myths when I observed them.
Very quickly I became known as argumentative, antagonistic, and controversial because I had the audacity to let someone know when I thought their views were skewed or might be based on inaccurate information or when they posted verifiably untrue things.
It was, in fact, quite obvious that I’d become somewhat of a running joke in my very small, very rural, very conservative town.
Those people didn’t seem to care that my comments and perspectives had merit — and more importantly, were factually correct— or that they were participating in the spread of misinformation, intentionally or not.
The only thing that seemed to matter was that I had contrary views — liberal views — and that I was not quiet about them.
I bring all of this up as background for my review and enthusiastic recommendation of a book I just finished listening to, Diane Chamberlain’s The Last House on the Street, which was released in January.
A community’s past sins rise to the surface in New York Times bestselling author Diane Chamberlain’s The Last House on the Street when two women, a generation apart, find themselves bound by tragedy and an unsolved, decades-old mystery.
Growing up in the well-to-do town of Round Hill, North Carolina, Ellie Hockley was raised to be a certain type of proper Southern lady. Enrolled in college and all but engaged to a bank manager, Ellie isn’t as committed to her expected future as her family believes. She’s chosen to spend her summer break as a volunteer helping to register black voters. But as Ellie follows her ideals fighting for the civil rights of the marginalized, her scandalized parents scorn her efforts, and her neighbors reveal their prejudices. And when she loses her heart to a fellow volunteer, Ellie discovers the frightening true nature of the people living in Round Hill.
Architect Kayla Carter and her husband designed a beautiful house for themselves in Round Hill’s new development, Shadow Ridge Estates. It was supposed to be a home where they could raise their three-year-old daughter and grow old together. Instead, it’s the place where Kayla’s husband died in an accident―a fact known to a mysterious woman who warns Kayla against moving in. The woods and lake behind the property are reputed to be haunted, and the new home has been targeted by vandals leaving threatening notes. And Kayla’s neighbor Ellie Hockley is harboring long buried secrets about the dark history of the land where her house was built.
Two women. Two stories. Both on a collision course with the truth — no matter what that truth may bring to light — in Diane Chamberlain’s riveting, powerful novel about the search for justice.
I requested an advanced copy of the audiobook version for review on NetGalley on a whim — typically, the books I read for review and reference purposes are nonfiction and almost all political or historical reads. However, the plot description of this one piqued my interest, and while it’s a work of fiction, it has elements of both politics and history.
This is the first book by Diane Chamberlain that I’ve read, so going into it I had no expectations of the quality or interest level it might have. Somewhat to my pleasant surprise, I was quickly drawn into the stories of Ellie and Kayla.
Both are strong women ahead of the expectations and restraints of their time and environment. Both have experienced tremendous adversity and have had to build a life afterwards. And both are inextricably connected to the property Kayla’s house is built on and the events that happened there decades before.
As a result of a desire to honor her activist aunt’s memory, atone for a past mistake, and effect actionable change according to her views on racial equality and voting rights, Ellie (who was born and raised in North Carolina) joins the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1965 SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Political Education) Project, which grew out of the Voter Education Project of 1962 to educate and prepare Black Americans in six Southern states for voting in advance of the passage of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson that same year.
The stated role of the SCLC’s SCOPE project was “an attack on the
three basic problems of the South, and in particular, on the problems of the ‘Southern Negro,’, disfranchisement, educational deprivation, and poverty.”
The program utilized hundreds of predominately white volunteers, mostly from northern colleges, as well as local community activists and preachers in the project’s target counties. The student volunteers lived with the Black families they were working amongst and those families were paid $15 per week to help cover the associated expenses.
By its official end date of August 28, 1965 — just a few weeks after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law — more than 49,000 new Black voters were registered by SCOPE volunteers.
Of course, the fact that Black Americans were given the federal right to vote did not always mean that they were freely allowed to exercise that right without impediment.
Stacey Abram’s documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy includes footage from when ABC News cut into the movie of the week, Judgment at Nuremberg, to show scenes of the violence and beatings of civil rights workers in the march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
One week later, President Johnson addressed Congress and spoke of the events in Selma and the need for voting to be a fundamental American Right, proclaiming, “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.”
As historian, educator, and author Carol Anderson said in All In, “One of the ways that Jim Crow worked so smoothly and so effectively was because you didn’t have to see it. But when you see the violence raining down on people who are just fighting for the right to vote, it tells you that something is systemically, fundamentally wrong in this democracy.”
Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and an activist, politician, and dictator added, “It was just…it was ruthless, and brutal, and criminal. But it was what changed the South on voting rights.”
The Voting Rights Act passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The act outlawed practices, such as literacy tests, that had been used to keep African Americans from registering to vote.
The Justice Department gained the power to intervene where discriminatory practices had kept less than 50 percent of eligible voters from registering to vote. If this intervention failed to fix the situation, federal registers could take over the local voting systems.
The second paragraph refers to the idea of preclearance, the specific measures of which were later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case.
Since then, heavily Republican states across the South have passed more and more restrictive voting laws, leading to polling place closures that have disproportionately affected predominately urban and minority areas of their states that typically vote Democrat.
Many see the Shelby County decision as a step toward the deconstruction (or destruction) of the Voting Rights Act from the inside out. The Act was reauthorized in 2006 for another 25 years, but some believe there will be a battle for its renewal in the next decade.
In The Last House on the Street, Ellie faces tremendous pushback from her friends and family for joining the fight for equality in voting rights, but that social pressure paled in comparison from the outright intimidation and violence of the KKK’s activities.
During the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, beginning with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools, membership in the Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed at a level unseen since the 1920s.
As the author of Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan, David Cunningham notes, “Surprisingly, the state with the largest Klan membership — more than the rest of the South combined — was North Carolina, a supposed bastion of southern-style progressivism.”
“Like its contemporaries in the Deep South, the massive Carolina Klan engaged in secretive campaigns of terror and intimidation, but also developed a strong public presence, spreading its message and supporting its members at massive nightly rallies, afternoon street walks, weekend church services and turkey shoots, and through local radio shows and roadside billboards.
The UKA’s successes in the Tar Heel State provide a window into the complex appeal of the KKK as a whole, demonstrating how the Klan organized most successfully where whites perceived civil rights reforms to be a significant threat to their status, where mainstream outlets for segregationist resistance were lacking, and where the policing of the Klan’s activities was lax.”
I don’t want to give too much of the storyline away, but it suffices to say that Klan membership was fairly commonplace and mainstream during that time. It was seen as a social group, a protection of the rights of white citizens to exist as they had for the previous hundred years as the world was changing around them — even in parts of the South that weren’t seen as quite so backwards, like North Carolina where this story takes place.
I think one thing that Diane Chamberlain’s book does very well at pointing out is how equally damaging and insidious apathy toward civil rights was, though — the general attitude was that “now isn’t the time,” that “the Negro vote will come eventually,” but “people around here aren’t ready for that yet.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. made this point often:
- “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
- “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
- “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
- “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
- “A right delayed is a right denied.”
- “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
- “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
- “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
- “The appalling silence of the good people is as serious as the vitriolic words of the bad people.”
“A time comes when silence is betrayal. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought, within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.”
“The demands of inner truth” are what drove Ellie to fight on behalf of the rights of people others close to her saw as unworthy.
It’s what drives me to “move against all the apathy of conformist thought” — as I originally did on the inside and then “in the surrounding world.”
It’s what motivates me to continue to fight for equality and justice even when it means that I lose friends or closeness in family relationships as a result. And while I haven’t experienced a fraction of the trauma or heartache that Ellie had to undergo as a result of her activism, I have been on the receiving end of threats in addition to the ostracism I already mentioned.
At its heart, I truly believe hate is founded on and stems from fear of the unknown.
When people like Ellie and I disrupt the status quo, especially in an attempt to change or upend the current system, it makes people uncomfortable at a minimum. Often it leads to fear and a reactionary grip on the present or past in their effort to avoid moving forward into an unknown future.
This is particularly true when the changes that are happening would mean that the rights and privileges they’ve previously enjoyed to the exclusion of others would be inclusive of them — I think in their mind, and as the popular quote says, equal rights are like pie, that more for others means less for them.
Thankfully, that’s not how equality works, but it is how these people are being told it works. They are being led to believe that as rights for others who are unlike them are expanded, rights for people like them are being eroded.
Take the issue of gay marriage, for instance. The entire narrative from the right during the fight for LGBT marital and civic equality revolved around “protecting the institution of traditional marriage”.
It should be obvious that in allowing gay people the right to marry no changes were being made to the rights or benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples; however, the way conservative politicians and media were painting it led people to think that in allowing the LGBT community to participate fully in the institution of marriage, it somehow eroded or cheapened the value of marriages between heterosexual individuals.
It’s also clear that this view is still the predominant one among conservatives in Congress and across America, as reflected in the line of questioning by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) during the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson:
“Isn’t it apparent that when the Supreme Court decides that something that is not even in the Constitution is a fundamental right and no state can pass any law that conflicts with the Supreme Court’s edict, particularly in an area where people have sincerely held religious beliefs, doesn’t that necessarily create a conflict between what people may believe as a matter of their religious doctrine or faith and what the federal government says is the law of the land?”
Cornyn’s objections are, first, that granting equal rights to LGBTQ people conflicts with the religious beliefs of some people. To which Jackson responded, “Well, senator, that is the nature of a right. That when there is a right, it means that there are limitations on regulation, even if people are regulating pursuant to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
— Mother Jones
Basically, Cornyn was proposing that laws created to define gay marriage as an equal right protected by the constitution were in conflict with the First Amendment, which accounts for “sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
His reasoning was that if those people publicly object to the granting of LGBT rights as a result of their religious beliefs, they could be subject to being called bigots, which he suggested was a violation of their rights.
Working through this logically, it is clear that Cornyn believes the right to religious freedom should be boundless and should allow someone with “sincerely-held beliefs” to violate the rights of others — that religious freedom should supersede any variety of other identity-related rights or protections that are as of yet undefined in the constitution (the unnumerated rights under the Ninth Amendment that they discussed at length two days ago).
To be clear, the First Amendment allows conservatives to believe in their “traditional definition of marriage” and therefore not get married to someone of the same sex. It does not allow them to use their First Amendment rights to religious freedom to impose their religious beliefs on or use them to restrict the rights of others who have their own First Amendment rights — the freedom of religion as well as the freedom from it.
Going back to the issue of racial justice, though, I think some truly believe that racial equality has been reached — was achieved when President Obama was first elected in 2008. They sincerely believe that because a little over half of the nation was not prejudiced enough to keep a black man out of the highest office in the land, racism doesn’t exist anymore.
They are conveniently forgetting the massive, outrightly racist pushback President Obama and his family endured — and continue to endure — as a direct result of their Blackness.
Regardless, racism and racial justice are two separate concepts.
There will likely always be racists; we live in an imperfect world. However, racial justice and equality in the law (and the practice of it) should be attainable goals. It’s 2022, 57 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and unfortunately it’s more likely that we’re at a greater risk of it being further eroded rather than it is that we will continue building on it and moving forward in progress.
Thankfully, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Diane Chamberlain’s The Last House on the Street is both engaging and inspiring.
She does a great job of weaving the lives of Ellie and Kayla together as well as of exploring the issues surrounding racial equality and justice — what they mean, how they can be achieved, and the terrible things that have happened in the past (and continue to happen today) in the pursuit of equality for all under the law.
I highly recommend it, both for the story itself and for the greater point it makes on the challenges of activism.