The Words of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Are More Relevant Than Ever

We've seen this all before, and Rod Serling knew we'd see it again.

Where will he go next?” Rod Serling says at the close of “He’s Alive,” notably one of the most controversial episodes of The Twilight Zone.

In that particular chapter, which aired in January of 1963, a spectral Adolf Hitler, who is portrayed as a shadowy ghost-like figure, aids the leader of a small and unsuccessful neo-Nazi group named Peter Vollmer. Hitler shows Volmer, who is played by a young Dennis Hopper, how to captivate a vulnerable audience and ultimately convinces Peter to murder an elderly Jewish man who was a father figure to Peter earlier in the episode. This comes after Volmer has also murdered subordinates and learns from the phantom of the Fuhrer how to scapegoat minorities and rile up a crowd into wanting to expunge Jewish and African American elements.

After the episode aired, Cayuga Productions received over 4,000 protest letters of varying severity due to the nature of the programming. 

In his closing narration, Serling continues: 

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“He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.”

On Nov. 11, 1966, Serling, two years removed from the end of his seminal anthology television series, reflected on the socio-political climate at the time in a speech at UCLA. It came just days after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in the California gubernatorial election and a stunning midterm election in which the Democratic Party lost 47 seats in the House of Representatives.

If he wasn’t drawing a direct correlation, then more pressing on Serling’s mind, however, was the civil unrest of ’66. All across the country, racial tensions spilled out into the streets; the Division Street riots in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community and on Chicago’s West Side; in Omaha, Nebraska; the Hough riots of Cleveland; the Waukegan Riot.

While addressing students of UCLA, Serling, who’s work often explored an anti-war stance, fascism, and racism, had the themes of “He’s Alive,” swirling around his head. Serling’s speech, presented unedited below and preserved via UCLA communications studies, is not to be dismissed as a portal to another time or dimension, but is a mirror reflecting our present reality. 

Words By Rod Serling on November 11, 1966 at UCLA: 

What follows are things that are near, and sometimes dear, to my heart: Some observations about current morality, a couple of asides about what are the things that buoy up my hopes, and conversely, what are some of the things that made me bleed to death.

First of all, there’s this business of this so-called white backlash, and the preoccupation we’ve seen with the riots in various parts of our country. I suppose if we were to semantically search for a definition of “white backlash,” we might say that it’s simple a self-righteous majority taking a most unrighteous position, and this position is found on two polarized points of the spectrum of race relations.

There are the militant whites who look like a rioting Negro, and who sagely make the philosophical point that this proves what they’ve been saying all along. That the Negroes were somehow a lesser breed of cat who could not be trusted with either political freedom, economic opportunities, or the prerogative that goes along with citizenship. 

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And as a corollary to that, they point a warning finger—or fist, depending on the region—to the Negro, and they tell them that’s it. The law-abiding, god-fearing, patriotic white American will not countenance the looting, and rampage, and violence of these marching blacks, and that from now on, that brief and illusory honeymoon that took place in Washington D.C. in 1964 is over.

Now we revert to type. Now we embrace those fundamentals that have always been the touchstone of both politics and race relations over the years. The white man is the boss. The black is the second-rated on the scene, and he forever shall be precisely that. And leave us not here anymore cries for equality because that equality, too, has been forfeited by these specter of black parlor, and the irresponsible that that phrase connotes.

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Now on the other end of the spectrum we have the parlor liberal, the essentially decent and well-motivated humanitarian, who shakes his head and clucks, and feels miserable that one percent of the Negro population has taken to the streets. And he waggles a finger at his Negro brothers and he says, “Slow man, slow. Cool it for a while. Soften your voices. Ease up on your demands. Turn off the klieg lights and crawl into the shadows. The essential thing now is to allow the frightened white majority time to recast you in your more subservient role, to which the white has become most accustomed, and feels most comfortable in.”

Now this is the so-called white backlash.

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North of the Mason-Dixon line, you don’t hear a candidate use that expression. Out here in California, it somehow enters the body of politics with a backdoor injection into a vein, and it comes out via an innuendo and a wise wink. We heard it from the proponents of Proposition 16, who tried to pass the so-called Anti-Obscenity law. And on the radio, you very likely heard the spot announcement, in which was pointed out that decent, law-abiding men and women have rights too. And that included the rights of their children to lead a reasonable sheltered and protected life during their formative years, free of salacious literature.

But perched on top of the sobriquet so-called “decent, law-abiding” was Jim Crow—plain, simple, and ugly. By decent, law-abiding men and women, they meant white decent, law-abiding men and women. 

The inference and the innuendo were very clear. “Hey Mac.” They were nudging us. “You know what we mean, Mac? We’re fighting for the right kind of people.” Then they wink again. “The WHITE kind of people. You know what we mean, Mac?” 

And in point of fact, putting referendums on ballots, like Proposition 16 and like Proposition 14, which repeal the Rumford Act, were instances of white backlash at its most vicious and hate-fostering best. It was the shrill and discordant voices of that segment of our society who are all together willing to honor law, and acknowledge justice, and indeed, embrace morality—but only their brand of all three. 

And if the law and the law-makers do not subscribe to their points of view, then we move into the “impeach Earl Warren” syndrome, in which we are told to throw the rascals out and throw the laws out as well.

So desperately afraid are these people of any kind of centralized government, and you hear them bemoan this democratic phenomenon constantly. It’s odd how quick and how vibrant they are when it comes to a few good federal laws of their own making and their own devices. 

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Well, I believe when we talk of law, or justice, or morality, we’re going to have to consign this so called “white backlash” to its proper place, and that would have to be in a city dump some place outside of Pomona. To the men who who say that the Negro has no right to riot, and no right to pillage, and no right to loot, we must acknowledge that he’s right, but let us at the same time make this an all-inclusive attitude, and let it apply to all men who would loot, and pillage, and burn.

Let it apply to any and all overt attempts to subvert law and order. Let it, for example, apply to the six thousand-odd lynchings that have taken place against the Negro race between the middle of the 19th century and 1939. Six thousand recorded lynchings, that is. God knows how many that took place that did not find their way into historical statistics.

And let’s not make this morality of ours so selective as to color. While we talk of Watts, and Atlanta, and Berkley, and Cleveland, Ohio, let’s remember the bomb placed in the Selma, Alabama church. And this was not the act of passion that makes hopeless, anguish people throw bricks in store windows. It was a cold, calculative, predatory, and logically ordered act of hating men who projected their hate and gave it form to take the lives of six innocent Negro kids.

Of the two—a mob that races through a ghetto on a hot summer night or the white men who so carefully plans the taking of human lives—I’m hard-pressed to decide which is the most immoral, but my tendencies are to be much more sympathetic to the marchers than the murderers.

What I’m trying to say here is that no one here has seen fit to challenge the rights of Italian Americans because there happens to be a Cosa Nostra around. Nobody has entertained the thought of disenfranchising the Southern White because he has a history of violence against the Negro that is as regular as it is appalling. And I saw no public outcry at retaining Texas as a state in the union when on a November day, a young president of the United States was shot down in the streets, and those streets were lined with placards supplied by the Dallas Birch Society which said “Wanted for treason, JFK.”

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It’s incredible the selective morality which would disenfranchise the Negro because of the one percent who violated the law, and yet described no such racial sigma to the white man, who’s been doing far worse for a hell of a longer time. It makes no sense and it serves no purpose.

Now, as to the other end of the spectrum, which is my end of the spectrum, because I’ve fallen prey to this myself, the emotional reaction to what happened in Oakland, and everywhere else. I instinctively hold up my hands and I turned to my Negro friends, who are legion, and I say, “For God’s sakes, cool it. Will you slow down? Don’t ask for your rights so stridently, or so continuously, or so demandingly. You’re hurting your own cause.”

Now this is speciest, and it is without logic, and above all, it is without justice. Who are we, any of us, to tell the Negro to slow down in his demands for the things which are his due? His right? His legacy? Who are we to hold out equality in employment, and equality in education, and equality in living conditions, like a kind of a small country club golf trophy, and say, “You’ll get it in good time.” Or “You’ll get it if you’re a good boy.” Or “You’ll get it if you’re more differential, or perhaps less noisy about it.”

In all truth, these are rights which properly are not ours to give. They already exist. They’re a matter of record. The truth is, all these equality belongs to the Negro. We’ve simply not given it to them. We’ve not extended it to them. We never really made it a record that by everything holy and right, it’s theirs to begin with. I frankly think we’ve run out of alternatives now. Either we ultimately must face the fact that we’re going to have to live side by side with our neighbors, or we’re going to have to carve this land up into ghetto-gradations.

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There isn’t a middle ground anymore, and so long as we deny anything to anyone, there will be more Watts, and more Atlantas, and more Harlems, and more of everything else. There isn’t a racial group, or a political party, or a national entity who historically will not ultimately take to the streets when they’re denied so long and too long what belongs to them.

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I’m not condoning the breaking of store windows or the burning of buildings. Or the destructions of property. There’s no question that it does hurt the cause. There’s no question whether it damages the images of our Negro citizens. I wish the hell they wouldn’t march. I wish the hell they’d make it easy for us liberals to be patient, if not acquiescent, all the time. 

But everything inside me that has to do with principle, and honor, and ethics dictate that I not turn my back on the legitimate aspirations of a people because they’ve run out of patience and run out of acquiescence. Crime in the streets is one thing, but the prolonged, continuous crime of the denial of freedom is a more costly and a much more serious departure from justice.