When the healthcare reform bill passed the U.S. House last week by a vote of 220 to 211, it wasn’t hard to find things in it to oppose. This indeed is not a miracle cure. It won’t stop insurance companies from jacking up rates, for instance, but maybe folks like my 85-year-old mother will at least get a break on the cost of her prescription drugs.

But the most heinous thing that happened that day had nothing to do with the legislation itself. It was the vile display of bigotry by protesters at the foot of the Capitol steps. Someone, hiding in the crowd on that Saturday, spat on U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. Several somebodies shouted the n-word, including to Rep. John Lewis, who was severely beaten during a 1965 civil rights march. And among the signs protesters held was one that said, referring to a senator and to a brand of gun, “If Brown can’t stop it, Browning can.”

No one could positively identify the culprits. The rest of the Tea Party revelers heard no evil, saw no evil, and spoke no evil. But they were doing evil.

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Opposition to any piece of legislation is fine. But the brazen display of hateful name-calling and spitting on legislators that has occurred in connection with the bill has no place in our democratic process.

Apologists are quick to disavow these hate-mongers and marginalize them as fringe members of the Tea Party movement, which professes to have legitimate grievances against the federal government. But the heart and soul of the movement is rooted in hate for President Barack Obama — and not because he is a Democrat.

It was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who first openly declared his hope that Obama would fail, not at any one thing, but at everything he attempted. Whatever the new president did, he could do no right for the Limbaugh crowd. His failure would prove to all racial bigots that a black man was not competent to be president of the United States. His success would disprove the idea of white supremacy, which holds that blacks are generally inferior in leadership quality.

The Republican Party has been accommodating — even feeding — this phobia, right under the nose of its African-American chairman, Michael Steele. He comes from the same school of thought that pitted black preachers against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Steele would have been one of those black leaders who branded King as a troublemaker, so it is no surprise to see his cheap swipes against Obama.

The name-calling and hateful rhetoric of the health bill protesters dredged up memories of my youth from the 1950s and ’60s, when we saw black schoolchildren in Arkansas being lambasted with racial slurs and spat upon as they tried to integrate the school system. This was not the fringe inciting the hate mob, but the governor of Arkansas himself, Orval Faubus.

In Mississippi, the man leading the hostile jeers against James Meredith, an African-American student trying to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962, was Gov. Ross Barnett. And blocking the way to keep African-American students from entering the University of Alabama in 1963 was Gov. George Wallace.

These days, bigotry is usually more bark than bite. But apparently for some, the Southern sentiments that led to the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 have not changed. There is no repentance and no remorse.

It is the same convoluted self-justification used by those who assassinated Medgar Evers in 1963 because, among other things, he protested the lynching of Emmett Till. They blamed the victim for inducing the crime, just as they blamed King for instigating the violence that led to murder of the civil rights students in Mississippi in 1964.

It is the same scenario, the same pattern of behavior, the same kind of inflammatory rhetoric. The hecklers in Washington, D. C., were true to the characteristics of their forefathers, always hiding in the crowd, agitating the mob into a mindless frenzy, playing on vulnerable emotions. The gullible mass of protesters provided shelter and comfort to the haters and seemed generally no more embarrassed than Bull Connor did when he turned fire hoses and police dogs on children and bystanders.

Somebody spat, someone else shouted out the racial epithet, someone held up the sign. Just like someone bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little black girls in 1963. Plausible denial is a racist’s chief defense. That nobody saw him, nobody heard him, and nobody can prove what is in his heart is all the cover he needs. And the racists were getting that cover last week in Washington from those who are supposed to be leaders of the Republican Party.

Eddie Griffin is a local blogger and activist.