Sunday, August 23, 2009

Conservatism: The 5th Estate Chapter One (continued)







Slavery pit textile merchants and plantation owners against abolitionists, Democrat against Republican, rich against poor, white against black and so forth. And, as the conscription riots of 1863 New York City had proved, these racial and socioeconomic battles were not mainly confined to south of the Mason/Dixon line and that the bitterest and bloodiest disputes took place there.

Politicians of all periods are often the savviest and likeliest to capitalize on such divides and, in an important way, southern Democrats must accept much of the blame. Practically the minute Abraham Lincoln breathed his last across the street from Ford’s Theater, his successor began deviating from the dead President’s promise of a humane and conciliatory Reconstruction.

That may have not been Johnson’s intention. In fact, all outward indications were that the new president would try to continue Lincoln’s vision of an orderly and peaceful Reconstruction even to the point of signing executive orders defying acts of Congress passed by Radical and moderate Republicans who wanted revenge on the South for Lincoln’s assassination. But Johnson’s compromises would only go so far and one of the key failures of Johnson’s handling of the Reconstruction was to give plantations back to the former owners (provided they were pardoned) and not to the Freedmen.

The Civil War and the end of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment that saw many thousands of freed African Americans trade the cotton fields for the battle fields all but devastated the south’s vital textile industry.

Johnson blocking wholesale land redistribution meant that many freedmen were forced to stay on as sharecroppers, working on a “crop-lien” basis which was essentially slavery with few more rights. These sharecroppers were the ones who’d perhaps innately realized they were virtually unemployable elsewhere. Yet many other newly-freed African Americans migrated to cities, centers of industrialism hence economic opportunity, leaving the cotton fields behind forever.

This desertion of what was probably viewed as their Calvinistic destiny plus their newly-empowered status (blacks were now dangerously close to being their equals) in a way released antebellum violence on blacks for merely exercising their newfound rights. In the months following Appomattox, Carl Schurz, Civil War Union Army General and future United States Senator and Secretary of the Interior, wrote a report for Congress detailing how sharecroppers who tried to flee their poverty were treated. Schurz wrote,
The number of murders and assaults perpetrated upon Negroes is very great; we can form only an approximative estimate of what is going on in those parts of the South which are not closely garrisoned, and from which no regular reports are received, by what occurs under the very eyes of our military authorities. As to my personal experience, I will only mention that during my two days sojourn at Atlanta, one Negro was stabbed with fatal effect on the street, and three were poisoned, one of whom died. While I was at Montgomery, one negro was cut across the throat evidently with intent to kill, and another was shot, but both escaped with their lives. Several papers attached to this report give an account of the number of capital cases that occurred at certain places during a certain period of time. It is a sad fact that the perpetration of those acts is not confined to that class of people which might be called the rabble.

The irony in this is that Southern whites didn’t realize that many lawmakers, especially the Radical Republicans, had reviled and victimized them just as surely as the southern Democrats had the blacks. Congress temporarily suspending 10-15,000 former confederates the right to vote while giving blacks that very same right plus limited powers of enfranchisement didn’t exactly improve race relations.

For many in the south, Appomattox had never happened and local Democratic politicians defied Congress with the so-called black laws that sought to take back many if not all the rights given to African Americans after the war. Overturning these Jim Crow laws required an Act of Congress: the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This was vetoed by President Johnson but on the grounds that granting citizenship and rights to freedmen would be tantamount to invading the sovereignty of eleven of the 36 states that had not been readmitted back into Congress. The Democrats, the Republicans of their time as they proudly proclaimed themselves the party of white men, perverted Johnson’s grounds for vetoing the Civil Rights bill and made him one of their own.

While it can’t be said that Democrats on Capitol Hill had much of a say as regards Reconstruction (by a couple of years after the end of the Civil War they had virtually no power in Congress), many state-level Democratic politicians (named The Redeemers) openly worked in collusion with the KKK, “scalawags” and in some cases even the reviled carpetbaggers. The corruption of the Grant administration caused several founding members of the Republican Party, most notably Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, to flee to the Democrats. By the middle of Grant’s administration, Reconstruction (or its original vision of conciliation and mercy toward the old Confederacy and toward newly enfranchised blacks) was dead.

The most violent episode of Democratic intolerance of Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act and the 15th Amendment was the Colfax massacre of 1873. Arising from the disputed 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election and local offices up for grabs, the armed conflicts between black militia members and KKK-assisted white Democrats resulted in perhaps up to 150 deaths of African Americans. By contrast, only three whites were killed.

There’s the beginning of your Southern Strategy, one that was ready-made and still simmering by the time Nixon began his political comeback 100 years later. Only this time, the Democrats (or the Dixiecrats) had become the Republicans and vice versa. What we saw in Selma, Alabama in 1965 was essentially the same as what Selma residents saw exactly a century ago and for racial reasons.

Despite first the Democrats then the Republicans trying to attach themselves to southern causes, it seems that in neither case was economic recovery part of their M.O. and this is a neglectful trend that continues to this day. For instance, 13 states that contain the 100 poorest counties by capita income (according to the US Census Bureau’s data from the 2000 census) can be considered southern states. Texas led the pack with a whopping 17, almost all in the panhandle region; Kentucky, 16; Mississippi, 14; Louisiana, 5; Alabama, 4; Georgia, 4; Tennessee, 2; West Virginia, 2; Arkansas, 1; Florida, 1; Missouri, 1; Oklahoma, 1; South Carolina, 1. 26 states did not have counties among the poorest 100. Among them: All six New England states, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Neither did California, Oregon, Michigan or Washington State.

It’s also worth noting that many of the 100 poorest counties listed are ones featuring high concentrations of Mexican, Native American and African American populations, three ethnic groups that reliably vote Democratic. The 15th poorest, for instance, 67.29% of East Carroll Parish, LA were African Americans according the 2004 election numbers. Apache County, Arizona, predictably, features 76.88% of Native Americans in the 10th poorest county. Ziebach County, SD, #4 on the list: 72.29% Native American. And the poorest US county in 2000, Buffalo County, South Dakota is made up of 81.59% Native Americans. And #2 Shannon County, SD’s population is 94.20% Native American.

And yet, many of these poor states somehow get less relief money than far wealthier states. In fact, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2004 report on the subject, “… more federal money went to rich states than to poor states, but poor states relied more heavily on the federal government to support their social programs.”

In light of all this historical context, we have to once again ask ourselves, Why do southerners who are plainly not represented in any meaningful way by whatever party fastens itself to their cause likewise fasten themselves to the wrong party time and again? The answer is simple but hardly encouraging: Racism.

The Republican Party, like their Democratic ideologues of a century before, appealed to their racism and bitterness over Reconstruction and by skillfully fooling them into thinking, while not having any solutions of their own, that liberals and blacks were the root cause of their impoverishment. And it’s a strategy that still works to this day.

1 Comments:

At August 23, 2009 at 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, The North is far more racist that the South. It's just that Yankees have that superior attitude. The Yankees foisted desegregation on the South a full 10 years before they tackled the North. There's still cities in the North (eg:Cicero, Il) where it is not advisable, or safe, for blacks to live in. The racism in the North is a more insidious type of racism, perpetrated by well meaning Liberals who still use color as their guide.

 

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