Category Archives: History

A white supremacist coup succeeded in 1898 North Carolina

led by lying politicians and racist newspapers that amplified their lies

 

by Kathy Roberts Forde, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Kristin Gustafson, University of Washington, Bothell

While experts debate whether the U.S. Capitol siege was an attempted coup, there is no debate that what happened in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, was a coup – and its consequences were tragic.

These two events, separated by 122 years, share critical features. Each was organized and planned. Each was an effort to steal an election and disfranchise voters. Each was animated by white racist fears.

And each required the help of the media to be successful.

Armed white insurrectionists murdered Black men and burned Black businesses, including this newspaper office, during the Wilmington coup of 1898. Daily Record, North Carolina Archives and History

Those who study Reconstruction and its aftermath know the U.S. has deep experience with political and electoral violence. Reconstruction was the 12-year period following the Civil War when the South returned to the Union and newly freed Black Americans were incorporated into U.S. democracy.

But few understand that the Wilmington coup, when white supremacists overthrew the city’s legitimately elected bi-racial government, could not have happened without the involvement of white news media. The same is true of the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, 2021.

The news media, it turns out, have often been key actors in U.S. electoral violence. This history is explored in a chapter one of us – Gustafson – wrote for a book the other – Forde – co-edited with Sid Bedingfield, “Journalism & Jim Crow: The Making of White Supremacy in the New South,” which comes out later this year.

In 1898, Charles B. Aycock wanted to become governor in North Carolina. A member of the elite class, Aycock was a leading Democrat, which was the party of white supremacy in the South before the mid-20th-century political realignment that produced today’s parties.

A major obstacle lay in his path to the governor’s office. Several years earlier, Black Republicans and white Populists in North Carolina, tired of Democrats enriching themselves off public policies favoring banks, railroads and industry, joined forces.

Known as Fusionists, they rose to power in the executive branch, the legislature and the governments of several eastern towns, but most importantly, the thriving port city of Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina.

A racist political cartoon by Norman Jennett showing a boot worn by a Black man smashing a white man underneath.
A political cartoon from the Raleigh News & Observer, Aug. 13, 1898. North Carolina Collection, UNC Chapel Hill

Anti-Black disinformation

Wilmington, with its majority Black population and successful Black middle class, was a city that offered hope for Black Southerners. Black men had higher rates of literacy than white men, ran some of the city’s most successful businesses, such as restaurants, tailors, shoemakers, furniture makers and jewelers, and, to the dismay of Democrats, held public office.

Dr. Umar Johnson delivers seething commentary about negative propaganda and it's power against a target population.

Democrats, seething over their loss of power, were determined to get it back in the state election of 1898.

Aycock joined forces with Furnifold Simmons, a former U.S. representative who served as the party’s campaign manager, and Josephus Daniels, the editor Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper. Together they hatched a plan.

Using anti-Black disinformation spread through newspapers and public speeches across the state, they would whip up white racial fears of “Negro domination” and “black beasts” that preyed on the “virtue” of white women. The goal: drive a wedge in the Fusionist coalition and lure white Populists back to the Democratic fold.

The press and political power

The News & Observer, the most influential newspaper in the state, was the Democratic Party’s most potent weapon. Its editor called it “the militant voice of white supremacy.”

For months in advance of the November election, the paper ran articles, editorials, speeches and reader letters telling lies about Black malfeasance, misrule, criminality and sexual predations against white women. White newspapers across the state, from big cities to tiny hamlets, republished the News & Observer’s content.

The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina, September 27, 1898

“The prevalence of rape by brutal negroes upon helpless white women has brought about a reign of terror in rural districts,” the paper said. Daniels admitted years later this claim was a lie.

Knowing the power of images, Daniels hired a cartoonist to create viciously racist images for the front page.

Roughly a year after Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent white Georgian, gave a speech advocating the lynching of Black men for their supposed assaults on white women, white newspapers across North Carolina reprinted and discussed it for days to gin up racist hostility.

At the same time, the Democrats organized the Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the party, to intimidate Black citizens and stop them from participating in politics and, eventually, voting.

Alexander Manly, the editor of the Black newspaper The Daily Record in Wilmington, then the only Black daily in the country, decided to fight back.

To counteract the lies the Democrats and Felton told about Black men as “beasts” and “brutes,” Manly told the truth in a bold editorial: Some white women fell in love with Black men and, if these affairs were discovered, the inevitable outcome was the label “rape” and a brutal lynching. The grandson of a white governor of North Carolina and a Black woman he enslaved, Manly knew white hypocrisy well.

Democrats went wild, reprinting Manly’s editorial in newspapers across the state and attacking him for insulting the “virtue” of white women.

A white fist holding a bat, about to strike a Black man in an 1898 political cartoon.
An anti-Black political cartoon by Norman Jennett in the Raleigh News & Observer, Aug. 30, 1898. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The coup

As the election approached and Red Shirts patrolled the state, Democrats laid their final plan.

Because there were few local elections in Wilmington in 1898, and Democrats viewed the city as the center of “Negro domination” in the state, they began organizing in early fall to overthrow Wilmington’s bi-racial government and install all white officials.

After stealing the state election through fraud and violence, the Democrats sent a massive group of Red Shirts into Wilmington.

They murdered an untold number of Black men in the street; burned Black businesses, including Manly’s newspaper office; terrorized the Black community, forcing at least 1,400 people to flee, many never to return; and removed and exiled all Fusionists from office, installing white Democrats in their stead.

Early in the new century, Aycock sat in the governor’s office. Black citizens were disfranchised by constitutional amendment, ushering in white supremacist, one-party, kleptocratic rule that lasted at least through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then and now

Across the past four years, the overwhelmingly white right-wing news media spread lies that President Donald Trump and his allies churned out daily. Social media companies helped turn these lies into a contagion of mass delusion that radicalized a significant swath of the GOP base.

Since President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November, Trump and his political and media allies have relentlessly pushed the massive lie that liberals stole the presidential election.

Like press involvement in the murderous events in Wilmington long ago, today’s media played an essential role in deluding and inciting supporters to violence in the attempt to steal an election.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”The Conversation


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

The Extraordinary Negro – Ignatius Sancho

Known during his lifetime as "the extraordinary Negro", Ignatius Sancho (c.1729–1780) was a British abolitionist, writer and composer. Sancho is the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election, and the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press.

As the memoir which begins this third edition of his Letters tells us, Sancho was "born A. D. 1729, onboard a ship in the Slave trade, a few days after it had quitted the coast of Guinea for the Spanish West-Indies".

Portrait of an African, attributed to Allan Ramsay, a painting some suggest depicts a young Ignatius Sancho. It was previously believed to have depicted the writer Olaudah Equiano.

After "a disease of the new climate put an early period to his mother's existence; and his father defeated by the miseries of slavery by an act of suicide", Ignatius, just two years old, was brought by his master to England, and given to the man's three unmarried sisters who lived together in Greenwich, where he remained their slave for eighteen years from 1731 to 1749. The sisters were far from kind, and "the petulance of their disposition" bestowed upon little Ignatius his surname, "from a fancied resemblance to the Squire of Don Quixote".

Unable to bear being a servant to them, Sancho would escape the grip of the sisters, when, by chance, he met the Duke of Montagu who took a liking to his "native frankness of manner". Sancho took to visiting the Duke and Duchess regularly, where he was encouraged to read, and was also lent books from the Duke's personal library. At the age of 20, shortly after the Duke's death, Sancho fled the household of the sisters to become the butler at the Duchess Montagu household, where he worked for the next two years until her death. Sancho left and started his own business as a shopkeeper, while also starting to write and publish various essays, plays and books.

Immersing himself in the world of literature and music (while also working as a valet for the Duke and Duchess' daughter and husband, and then later as a greengrocer), Sancho became well known in the literary and artistic circles of the day, becoming acquainted with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough (who painted his portrait), the actor David Garrick, and the novelist Laurence Sterne. It was his correspondence with the latter which helped secure him a reputation as a man of letters, and a symbol of the abolitionist movement. At the height of the debate about slavery, in 1766, Sancho wrote to Sterne encouraging the writer to lend his fame to help lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. "That subject, handled in your striking manner," wrote Sancho, "would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!". Sterne's reply became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.

There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or your’s, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s,1 to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ’ere mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so."

In another letter, writing his friend's son who had expressed racist attitudes after a visit to India, Sancho wrote:

I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love – and for its freedom – and for the many blessings I enjoy in it – shall ever have my warmest wishes, prayers and blessings); I say it is with reluctance, that I must observe your country's conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West-Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them – Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part—to unite mankind in the blessed chains of brotherly love – society – and mutual dependence: the enlightened Christian should diffuse the riches of the Gospel of peace – with the commodities of his respective land – Commerce attended with strict honesty – and with Religion for its companion – would be a blessing to every shore it touched at. In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil- are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.

In 1758 Sancho married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he had seven children. After Sancho left the Montagu household, the couple opened a grocery store in Westminster, where Sancho, by then a well-known cultural figure, maintained an active social and literary life until his death in 1780. As a financially independent male householder, Sancho became eligible to vote and did so in 1774 and again just before his death in 1780, becoming the first known Black Briton to have voted in Britain.

Gaining fame in Britain as "the extraordinary Negro", to British abolitionists, Sancho became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and the immorality of the slave trade and slavery. Sancho died in 1780, with his The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, being one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English from a first-hand experience.

Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1784)

Sancho, Ignatius. 1784. Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. To which are prefixed, memoirs of his life. London: Printed by J. Nichols; and sold by C. Dilly.
In addition to his many letters — the publication of which was an immediate bestseller — Sancho also published a book for the Princess Royal about his great passion, music, and two plays.

The forgotten voices of race records

Ma Rainey, Pullman Porters, the Rev TT Rose, and the 'Man with a Clarinet'

Court.rchp.com Editiorial note by Randall Hill:

I was for the most part unfamiliar with Ma Rainey, until I watched Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Netflix.  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a film based on the play of the same name by August Wilson. The focus is on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatizes a turbulent recording session in 1927 Chicago.

Gertrude "MaRainey (born Gertrude Pridgett, 1882 or 1886 – December 22, 1939) was one of the first generation of blues singers to record. Gertrude Pridgett began performing as a teenager and became known as "Ma" Rainey after her marriage to Will "Pa" Rainey in 1904.

The "Mother of the Blues", she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers. Throughout the 1920s, Ma Rainey had a reputation for being one of the most dynamic performers in the United States due in large part to her songwriting, showmanship and voice. Between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey made more then 100 recordings. Bessie Smith toured with Ma Rainey early in Smith's career and was mentored by Rainey. Rainey never achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, whom became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day, however, Rainey and Smith became friendly rivals.

Rainey was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring her. In 2004, Rainey was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was added into the Library of Congress National Recording Register. Three years later, Rainey's former home in Columbus was turned into a museum. The Columbus native’s legacy continues to be celebrated in her hometown, which hosted the first-annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival in 2016. 

Thankfully, the stories of Ma Rainey and other musicians piviotal to our history are being told and embraced by multiple generations of new fans.


by Jerry Zolten, Penn State

In the 1920s and 1930s, record sales of black artists were very lucrative for the music industry. As a June 1926 article from Talking Machine World explained:

The Negro trade is…itself…an enormously profitable occupation for the retailer who knows his way about…. The segregation of the Negro population has enabled dealers to build up a trade catering to this race exclusively.

Yet record companies routinely took advantage of the more unschooled, vernacular performers – especially black ones, who were already denied access to broader markets. It was standard operating procedure back in the days of “race music” – the name given to recordings by black artists that were marketed to the black buying public.

Ma Rainey was one of Paramount Records’ most popular artists. JP Jazz Archive/Redferns

 

“Some will rob you with a six-gun…and some with a fountain pen.” So said Woody Guthrie in his song “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Bottom line: if record companies could get away with it, there was no bottom line. No negotiated contract to sign. No publishing. No royalties. Wham bam thank you man. Take a low-ball flat fee and hit the road. Anonymity was also implicit in the deal, so many black artists were forgotten, their only legacy the era’s brittle shellac disks that were able to withstand the wear of time.

‘Some will rob you with a six-gun…and some with a fountain pen’ – record companies like Paramount routinely exploited black musicians in the 1920s. Wikimedia Commons

One of the most prominent early race labels was Paramount Records, which, between 1917 and 1932, recorded a breathtaking cross-section of seminal African-American artists.

In 2013 I learned that Jack White of Third Man Records (in partnership with Dean Blackwood’s Revenant Records) would be putting together a compilation of Paramount’s historic recordings. The project would be a grand collaboration of two deluxe volumes that would contain a stunning 1,600 tracks.

I was part of a team of researchers and writers tasked with unearthing new information about the featured artists and their songs. For me, it was an opportunity to put a face on some of Paramount’s more enigmatic artists. Listening to track after track, a zeitgeist began to coalesce. As voices from the grooves accrued to tell a story of a collective black experience, I came to see these performances as cumulative cultural memory – each track a brushstroke in a painting of a long-forgotten landscape.

Here’s a taste of what I found.

Pullman Porters Quartette

The Pullman Company, manufacturers of railroad passenger cars, was magnanimous towards its African-American workforce. Among other benefits, they provided in-house musical instruction, which included a cappella quartet singing lessons.

The Pullman Company employed a large number of African Americans as porters. Flickr/antefixus U.E., CC BY-NC-ND

The Pullman quartets, I learned, were a franchise: multiple configurations of singers performing concurrently under the company banner. They put on concerts, either performing live on the radio, or on long haul train routes as a form of passenger entertainment. The men who made the records were billed as the “President’s Own” – the working Pullman porters considered the company’s premier lineup.

In the late 1920s, The Pullman Porters Quartette of Chicago recorded a number of sides for Paramount. One tune was “Jog-a-Long Boys,” where they sang of sad roosters and being turned down by widow Brown, the “fattest gal in town.” The chorus went:

Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,

Be careful when you smile,

Do the latest style,

But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.

Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,

Don’t fool with google eyes,

That would not be wise,

But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.

At first, it seemed as if it were no more than a silly ditty performed in upbeat counterpoint harmony. Then it hit me: they were making light of a horrific reality – specifically, that a black man who dared to smile or even look askance at a white woman was putting himself in grave danger.

Look your best, but don’t forget your place…and just jog along, boys.

‘Jog-a-long Boys,’ by The Pullman Porters Quartet of Chicago.

Horace George

Horace George of Horace George’s Jubilee Harmonizers was a showman and an opportunist, a versatile musician who performed in whatever style sold, whether it was novelty gospel, blues, comedy or jazz.

His gospel group cut one record for Paramount in 1924, but he first surfaced as early as 1906, advertised in the Indianapolis Freeman as “the great clarinetist, comedian, and vocalist.” A few years later, George found himself in Seattle as the “Famous Colored Comedian…who gives correct images,” and later as the “Man with the Clarinet” in a touring black vaudeville troupe, the Great Dixieland Spectacle Company.

In the late 1910s, a black newspaper – the Indianapolis Freeman – called Horace George “a novelty on any bill.” The novelty? He could play three clarinets at once!

Rev TT Rose

Beyond the rollicking piano-driven gospel sides he cut for Paramount in the late 1920s, nothing was known of Rev T T Rose. Rose’s “Goodbye Babylon” was the title track of Dust-to-Digital’s 2004 Grammy-nominated collection, Goodbye, Babylon. It was also inspiration for a rock ‘n’ roll tune by the Black Keys. And Rose’s recording of “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down” – later performed by artists ranging from Rev. Gary Davis to the Grateful Dead – is one of the earliest known recorded versions of that song.

Rev Rose’s personal story was the most heartening of all. He lived in Springfield, Illinois, and I located his 90-plus-year-old daughter Dorothy, who described her father as a man on a mission to end racism and institutionalized segregation.

As a child, Rose had witnessed the aftermath of the infamous 1908 Springfield Race Riots, an event that precipitated the formation of the NAACP. In the late 1920s Rose moved from Chicago to Springfield, in order to minister the city’s black community.

In an oral history recording, Rev Rose described Springfield as “just really a type of Southern town” with an “overpowering resentment of the Negro…distrust and the fear that the Negro might someday become stronger.” When he returned to Springfield, he observed that the time that had elapsed since the race riots was “a very short span of time to erase all the scars and the prejudices and the hate that was engendered…in that very unfortunate affair.”

It was a hate, he continued, that “Kind of hung like a cloud from an atomic bomb over the whole neighborhood” causing the black citizens of Springfield to go “into themselves quite a bit.”

After his short recording career with Paramount in the late 1920s, Rev Rose went on to become a regional bishop in the Church of God in Christ. He recorded because he thought songs could both uplift and spread messages of hope and perseverance in the struggle for Civil Rights. When he sang “If I Had My Way,” it’s clear that the building he wanted to tear down was no less than the edifice of racism.

Lord, if I had my way,

Oh Lord, if I, if I had my way,

In this wicked world, if I had my way,

God, knows I’d tear this building down.The Conversation

‘If I Had My Way,’ by Rev TT Rose.

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a much more radical message than a dream of racial brotherhood

by Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.

But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.

Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. AP Photo

 

King’s support for white moderates

For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.

Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

A handwritten copy of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.

During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.

His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” responded to a newspaper advertisement from eight local clergymen urging King to allow the city government to enact gradual changes.

In a stark change from his earlier views, King devastatingly targeted white moderates willing to settle for “order” over justice. In an oppressive environment, the avoidance of conflict might appear to be “order,” but in fact supported the denial of basic citizenship rights, he noted.

“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. He argued how oppressors never voluntarily gave up freedom to the oppressed – it always had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.”

He wrote how he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” They were, he said, a greater enemy to racial justice than were members of the white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist radicals.

Call for economic justice

By 1967, King’s philosophy emphasized economic justice as essential to equality. And he made clear connections between American violence abroad in Vietnam and American social inequality at home.

Exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, King stood at one of the best-known pulpits in the nation, at Riverside Church in New York. There, he explained how he had come to connect the struggle for civil rights with the fight for economic justice and the early protests against the Vietnam War.

He proclaimed:

“Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over.”

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, talks with civil rights leaders at the White House in Washington, Jan. 18, 1964. AP Photo

He angered crucial allies. King and President Lyndon Johnson, for example, had been allies in achieving significant legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. Johnson’s “Great Society” launched a series of initiatives to address issues of poverty at home. But beginning in 1965, after the Johnson administration increased the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, King’s vision grew radical.

King continued with a searching analysis of what linked poverty and violence both at home and abroad. While he had spoken out before about the effects of colonialism, he now made the connection unmistakably clear. He said:

“I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

King concluded with the famous words on “the fierce urgency of now,” by which he emphasized the immediacy of the connection between economic injustice and racial inequality.

The radical King

King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 serves as the touchstone for the annual King holiday. But King’s dream ultimately evolved into a call for a fundamental redistribution of economic power and resources. It’s why he was in Memphis, supporting a strike by garbage workers, when he was assassinated in April 1968.

He remained, to the end, the prophet of nonviolent resistance. But these three key moments in King’s life show his evolution over a decade.

This remembering matters more than ever today. Many states are either passing or considering measures that would make it harder for many Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. It would roll back the huge gains in rates of political participation by racial minorities made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, there is a persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Only sustained government attention can address these issues – the point King was stressing later in his life.

King’s philosophy stood not just for “opportunity,” but for positive measures toward economic equality and political power. Ignoring this understanding betrays the “dream” that is ritually invoked each year.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Segregation policies in federal government in early 20th century harmed Blacks for decades

by Guo Xu, University of California, Berkeley and Abhay Aneja, University of California, Berkeley

Economic disparities in earnings, health and wealth between Black and white Americans are staggeringly large. Historical government practices and institutions – such as segregated schools, redlined neighborhoods and discrimination in medical care – have contributed to these wide disparities. While these causes may not always be overt, they can have lasting negative effects on the prosperity of minority communities.

Abhay Aneja and I are researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who specialize in examining the causes of social inequality. Our new research examines the U.S. federal government’s role in creating conditions of racial inequality more than a century ago. Specifically, we researched the harmful impact of government discrimination against Black civil service employees. We also examined how such discrimination continues to affect their families decades later, rippling across future generations.

A 1938 stamp honoring former President Woodrow Wilson, considered one of America’s most progressive presidents. iStock / Getty Images Plus

 

Decades of discrimination

Soon after his inauguration in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ushered in one of the most far-reaching discrimination policies of that century. Wilson discreetly authorized his Cabinet secretaries to implement a policy of racial segregation across the federal bureaucracy.

A Southerner by heritage, Wilson appointed several Southern Democrats to Cabinet offices, several of whom were sympathetic to the segregationist cause. Wilson’s new postmaster general, for example, was “anxious to segregate white and negro employees in all Departments of Government.” Historical accounts suggest that Wilson’s order was carried out most aggressively by the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Treasury Department, the latter responsible for revenue generation including taxes and customs duties. Based on the data we collected, the majority of Black civilians worked in these two federal departments before Wilson’s arrival.

Income inequality as a result of federal segregation policy.
Segregation as federal policy widens income disparity for Black Americans. Figure by Aneja and Xu (2020)

Given his support among Southern Democrats, one goal of the Wilson administration was to limit the access of Black civil servants to the highest positions within government. This outcome was achieved through both demotions and reductions, efforts to discourage the hiring of qualified Black candidates.

For example, photos became required to apply for government jobs in order to screen out Black candidates. Black Americans already employed in the federal civil service were transferred from relatively high-status posts to low-paying ones. This overall policy of Jim Crow-style segregation served to shut out Black Americans from working in one of the few places where they could find opportunities for economic mobility and success.

Deep roots of economic disparities

Despite the potential for enormous harm, the cost of segregation to the economic status of Black civil servants has long remained unknown. Our research started by examining how President Wilson contributed to earnings disparities between Black and white civil service workers. In so doing, our research added to the collective knowledge within the social sciences about the roots of racial inequality.

To build a database on earnings inequality, our team undertook a large-scale data digitization of previously undigitized and, to our knowledge, unexamined historical government records containing a detailed list of all people who worked for the federal government and what they earned each year. These records were contained in eight volumes of the Official Register of the U.S., a series spanning 1907 to 1921. For 1907, we obtained information for 125,000 workers. By 1921, the size of the government workforce had more than doubled.

Segregation reaches deep into the lives of Black Americans.
Segregation as commonplace as a drink of water. kickstand/E+ via Getty Images

This data collection and cleaning process created a comprehensive dataset to understand the operation of the American federal government at the beginning of the 20th century. It not only described a worker’s position and salary, but also contained rich personal information including a federal employee’s place of birth, the state from which they were appointed and the Cabinet department where they worked.

Because the register was issued every two years, our research made it possible to track a civil servant’s career progression over time. Looking at this data source, it was clear that President Wilson’s policy of segregating the federal workforce exacted an enormous cost from Black civil servants.

Sidelining Black federal workers

To isolate the impact of racial discrimination and establish comparable jobs and salaries, the analysis paired Black and white federal employees with similar characteristics. Each worked in the same city, the same government office and even had the same salary before President Wilson’s inauguration. Within this set of comparable workers, Black civil servants earned about 7% less than their white counterparts during Wilson’s two terms as president.

When we account for differences in civil servants, such as educational background, the reduction in earnings suffered by Black civil servants remains. Moreover, under the order to segregate, Black civil servants were less likely to be promoted over time and more likely to be demoted. This disparate treatment by the federal government enabled white civil servants to earn more over time than Black civil servants with the same levels of skill and experience. Our research provides strong evidence for the discriminatory nature of workplace segregation faced by Black Americans within the federal government.

Home ownership falls in relation to federal segregation policies targeting Black workers.
Black workers targeted by federal policies earned less money and had less capacity to own a home. Figure by Aneja and Xu (2020)

Our research shows that the damage caused by working under discriminatory conditions persisted well beyond Wilson’s presidency. The same Black civil servants victimized by discrimination in federal employment were also less likely to own a home in 1920, 1930 and 1940, almost three decades after Wilson was elected. Moreover, the school-age children of Black civil servants who served in the Wilson administration went on to have poorer-quality lives than their young white counterparts in terms of their overall earnings and quality of employment in adulthood.

This research can help to contribute to the understanding of the roots of economic disparities. A policy of racial discrimination – even if implemented temporarily – has lasting negative effects. A clearer understanding of historical discrimination can help to inform the design of policies aimed at remedying the painfully persistent racial inequities we observe today.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

African-American GIs of WWII: Fighting for democracy abroad and at home

by Maria Höhn, Vassar College

Until the 21st century, the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II barely registered in America’s collective memory of that war.

The “tan soldiers,” as the black press affectionately called them, were also for the most part left out of the triumphant narrative of America’s “Greatest Generation.” In order to tell their story of helping defeat Nazi Germany in my 2010 book, “Breath of Freedom,” I had to conduct research in more than 40 different archives in the U.S. and Germany.

Two U.S. soldiers on Easter morning, 1945. NARA

 

When a German TV production company, together with Smithsonian TV, turned that book into a documentary, the filmmakers searched U.S. media and military archives for two years for footage of black GIs in the final push into Germany and during the occupation of post-war Germany.

They watched hundreds of hours of film and discovered less than 10 minutes of footage. This despite the fact that among the 16 million U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, there were about one million African-American soldiers.

They fought in the Pacific, and they were part of the victorious army that liberated Europe from Nazi rule. Black soldiers were also part of the U.S. Army of occupation in Germany after the war. Still serving in strictly segregated units, they were sent to democratize the Germans and expunge all forms of racism.

A soldier paints over a swastika. NARA

It was that experience that convinced many of these veterans to continue their struggle for equality when they returned home to the U.S. They were to become the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement – a movement that changed the face of our nation and inspired millions of repressed people across the globe.

As a scholar of German history and of the more than 70-year U.S. military presence in Germany, I have marveled at the men and women of that generation. They were willing to fight for democracy abroad, while being denied democratic rights at home in the U.S. Because of their belief in America’s “democratic promise” and their sacrifices on behalf of those ideals, I was born into a free and democratic West Germany, just 10 years after that horrific war.

Fighting racism at home and abroad

By deploying troops abroad as warriors for and emissaries of American democracy, the military literally exported the African-American freedom struggle.

Beginning in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, African-American activists and the black press used white America’s condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow at home. America’s entry into the war and the struggle against Nazi Germany allowed civil rights activists to significantly step up their rhetoric.

Langston Hughes’ 1943 poem, “From Beaumont to Detroit,” addressed to America, eloquently expressed that sentiment:

“You jim crowed me / Before hitler rose to power- / And you are still jim crowing me- / Right now this very hour.”

Believing that fighting for American democracy abroad would finally grant African-Americans full citizenship at home, civil rights activists put pressure on the U.S. government to allow African-American soldiers to “fight like men,” side by side with white troops.

The military brass, disproportionately dominated by white Southern officers, refused. They argued that such a step would undermine military efficiency and negatively impact the morale of white soldiers. In an integrated military, black officers or NCOs might also end up commanding white troops. Such a challenge to the Jim Crow racial order based on white supremacy was seen as unacceptable.

The manpower of black soldiers was needed in order to win the war, but the military brass got its way; America’s Jim Crow order was to be upheld. African-Americans were allowed to train as pilots in the segregated Tuskeegee Airmen. The 92nd Buffalo Soldiers and 93rd Blue Helmets all-black divisions were activated and sent abroad under the command of white officers.

Despite these concessions, 90 percent of black troops were forced to serve in labor and supply units, rather than the more prestigious combat units. Except for a few short weeks during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when commanders were desperate for manpower, all U.S. soldiers served in strictly segregated units. Even the blood banks were segregated.

‘A Breath of Freedom’

After the defeat of the Nazi regime, an Army manual instructed U.S. occupation soldiers that America was the “living denial of Hitler’s absurd theories of a superior race,” and that it was up to them to teach the Germans “that the whole concept of superiority and intolerance of others is evil.” There was an obvious, deep gulf between this soaring rhetoric of democracy and racial harmony, and the stark reality of the Jim Crow army of occupation. It was also not lost on the black soldiers.

Women’s Army Corps in Nuremberg, Germany, 1949. Library of Congress

Post-Nazi Germany was hardly a country free of racism. But for the black soldiers, it was their first experience of a society without a formal Jim Crow color line. Their uniform identified them as victorious warriors and as Americans, rather than “Negroes.”

Serving in labor and supply units, they had access to all the goods and provisions starving Germans living in the ruins of their country yearned for. African-American cultural expressions such as jazz, defamed and banned by the Nazis, were another reason so many Germans were drawn to their black liberators. White America was stunned to see how much black GIs enjoyed their time abroad, and how much they dreaded their return home to the U.S.

By 1947, when the Cold War was heating up, the reality of the segregated Jim Crow Army in Germany was becoming a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. The Soviet Union and East German communist propaganda relentlessly attacked the U.S. and challenged its claim to be the leader of the “free world.” Again and again, they would point to the segregated military in West Germany, and to Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. to make their case.

Coming ‘home’

Newly returned veterans, civil rights advocates and the black press took advantage of that Cold War constellation. They evoked America’s mission of democracy in Germany to push for change at home. Responding to that pressure, the first institution of the U.S. to integrate was the U.S. military, made possible by Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. That monumental step, in turn, paved the way for the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Hosea Williams, World War II Army veteran and civil rights activist, rallies demonstrators in Selma, Ala. 1965. AP Photo

The veterans who had been abroad electrified and energized the larger struggle to make America live up to its promise of democracy and justice. They joined the NAACP in record numbers and founded new chapters of that organization in the South, despite a wave of violence against returning veterans. The veterans of World War II and the Korean War became the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Hosea Williams and Aaron Henry are some of the better-known names, but countless others helped advance the struggle.

About one-third of the leaders in the civil rights movement were veterans of World War II.

They fought for a better America in the streets of the South, at their workplaces in the North, as leaders in the NAACP, as plaintiffs before the Supreme Court and also within the U.S. military to make it a more inclusive institution. They were also the men of the hour at the 1963 March on Washington, when their military training and expertise was crucial to ensure that the day would not be marred by agitators opposed to civil rights.

“We structured the March on Washington like an army formation,” recalled veteran Joe Hairston.

For these veterans, the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations of President Barack Obama were triumphant moments in their long struggle for a better America and a more just world. Many never thought they would live to see the day that an African-American would lead their country.

To learn more about the contributions of African-American GIs, visit “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany” digital archive.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Only the richest ancient Athenians paid taxes – and they bragged about it

by Thomas Martin, College of the Holy Cross

In ancient Athens, only the very wealthiest people paid direct taxes, and these went to fund the city-state’s most important national expenses – the navy and honors for the gods. While today it might sound astonishing, most of these top taxpayers not only paid happily, but boasted about how much they paid.

Money was just as important to the ancient Athenians as it is to most people today, so what accounts for this enthusiastic reaction to a large tax bill? The Athenian financial elite felt this way because they earned an invaluable payback: public respect from the other citizens of their democracy.

A painting of the Acropolis in ancient Athens.
Ancient Athens was a thoroughly modern city in its large public funding needs. Leo von Klenze via Wikimedia Commons

Modern needs, modern finances

Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. had a population of free and enslaved people topping 300,000 individuals. The economy mostly focused on international trade, and Athens needed to spend large sums of money to keep things humming – from supporting national defense to the countless public fountains constantly pouring out drinking water all over the city.

Much of this income came from publicly owned farmland and silver mines that were leased to the highest bidders, but Athens also taxed imports and exports and collected fees from immigrants and prostitutes as well as fines imposed on losers in many court cases. In general, there were no direct taxes on income or wealth.

As Athens grew into an international power, it developed a large and expensive navy of several hundred state-of-the-art wooden warships called triremes – literally meaning three-rowers. Triremes cost huge amounts of money to build, equip and crew, and the Athenian financial elites were the ones that paid to make it happen.

An ancient carving showing a Trireme showing three levels of rowers.
Triremes were the most advanced and expensive military technology of the ancient Mediterranean, and rich Athenians funded them out of their own pockets. Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The top 1% of male property owners supported the saving or salvation of Athens –called “soteria” – by performing a special kind of public service called “leitourgia,” or liturgy. They served as a trireme commander, or “trierarch,” who personally funded the operating costs of a trireme for an entire year and even led the crew on missions. This public service was not cheap. To fund their liturgy as a trierarch, a rich taxpayer spent what a skilled worker earned in 10 to 20 years of steady pay, but instead of dodging this responsibility, most embraced it.

Running warships was not the only responsibility the rich had to national defense. When Athens was at war – which was most of the time – the wealthy had to pay contributions in cash called “eisphorai” to finance the citizen militia. These contributions were based on the value of their property, not their income, which made them in a sense a direct tax on wealth.

A photos of the ruins of the Theater of Dionysus showing rows upon rows of seats made of marble.
The Theater of Dionysus in Athens could hold thousands of spectators for shows subsidized by liturgists. dronepicr via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

To please the gods

To the ancient Athenians, physical military might was only part of the equation. They also believed that the salvation of the state from outside threats depended on a less tangible but equally crucial and costly source of defense: the favor of the gods.

To keep these powerful but fickle divine protectors on their side, the Athenians built elaborate temples, performed large sacrifices and organized lively public religious festivals. These massive spectacles featured musical extravaganzas and theater performances that were attended by tens of thousands of people and were hugely expensive to throw.

Just as with trieremes, the richest Athenians paid for these festivals by fulfilling festival liturgies. Serving as a chorus leader, for example, meant paying for the training, costumes and living expenses for large groups of performers for months at a time.

Proud to be paying

In the U.S. today, an estimated one out of every six tax dollars is unpaid. Large corporations and rich citizens do everything they can to minimize their tax bill. The Athenians would have ridiculed such behavior.

None of the financial elite of ancient Athens prided themselves on scamming the Athenian equivalent of the IRS. Just the opposite was true: They paid, and even boasted in public – truthfully – that they often had paid more than required when serving as a trierarch or chorus leader.

Of course, not every member of the superrich at Athens behaved like a patriotic champion. Some Athenian shirkers tried to escape their liturgies by claiming other people with more property ought to shoulder the cost instead of themselves, but this attempted weaseling out of public service never became the norm.

So what was the reasoning behind this civic, taxpaying pride? Ancient Athenians weren’t only opening their wallets to promote the common good. They were counting on earning a high return in public esteem from the investments in their community that their taxes represented.

This social capital was so valuable because Athenian culture held civic duty in high regard. If a rich Athenian hoarded his wealth, he was mocked and labeled a “greedy man” who “borrows from guests staying his house” and “when he sells wine to a friend, he sells it watered!”

A photo showing a tall, cylindrical monument with elaborate carvings.
The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates was erected in 335 B.C. by the liturgist Lysicrates after his play won first prize, and it still stands today. C messier via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Social wealth, not monetary riches

The social rewards that tax payments earned the rich had long lives. A liturgist who financed the chorus of a prize-winning drama could build himself a spectacular monument in a conspicuous downtown location to announce his excellence to all comers for all time.

Above all, the Athenian rich paid their taxes because they craved the social success that came from their compatriots publicly identifying them as citizens who are good because they are useful. Earning the honorable title of a useful citizen might sound tame today – it didn’t boost Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign even though he describes his political role as “trying to make myself useful” – but in a letter to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island written in 1790, George Washington proclaimed that being “useful” was an invaluable part of the divine plan for the United States.

So, too, the Athenians infused that designation with immense power. To be a rich taxpayer who was good and useful to his fellow citizens counted even more than money in the bank. And this invaluable public service profited all Athenians by keeping their democracy alive century after century.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Packing the Court: Amid national crises, Lincoln and his Republicans remade the Supreme Court to fit their agenda

by Calvin Schermerhorn, Arizona State University

As a political battle over the Supreme Court’s direction rages in Washington with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, history shows that political contests over the ideological slant of the Court are nothing new.

In the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln worked with fellow Republicans to shape the Court to carry out his party’s anti-slavery and pro-Union agenda. It was an age in which the court was unabashedly a “partisan creature,” in historian Rachel Shelden’s words.

Justice John Catron had advised Democrat James K. Polk’s 1844 presidential campaign, and Justice John McLean was a serial presidential contender in a black robe. And in the 1860s, Republican leaders would change the number of justices and the political balance of the Court to ensure their party’s dominance of its direction.

Overhauling the Court

When Lincoln became president in 1861, seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union, yet half of the Supreme Court justices were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland. One other Southern member had died in 1860, without replacement. All were Democratic appointees.

The Court was “the last stronghold of Southern power,” according to one Northern editor. Five sitting justices were among the court’s 7-2 majority in the racist 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling, in which Taney wrote that Black people were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Some Republicans declared it “the duty of the Republican Party to reorganize the Federal Court and reverse that decision, which … disgraces the judicial department of the Federal Government.”

After Lincoln called in April, 1861 for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion, four more states seceded. So did Justice John Archibald Campbell of Georgia, who resigned on April 30.

Chief Justice Taney helped the Confederacy when he tried to restrain the president’s power. In May 1861, he issued a writ of habeas corpus in Ex Parte Merryman declaring that the president couldn’t arbitrarily detain citizens suspected of aiding the Confederacy. Lincoln ignored the ruling.

Chief Justice Roger Taney.
Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to limit Lincoln’s powers in the Civil War. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Remaking the Court

To counter the court’s southern bloc, Republican leaders used judicial appointments to protect the president’s power to fight the Civil War. The Lincoln administration was also looking ahead to Reconstruction and a governing Republican majority.

Nine months into his term, Lincoln declared that “the country generally has outgrown our present judicial system,” which since 1837 had comprised nine federal court jurisdictions, or “circuits.” Supreme Court justices rode the circuit, presiding over those federal courts.

Republicans passed the Judiciary Act of 1862, overhauling the federal court system by collapsing federal circuits in the South from five to three while expanding circuits in the North from four to six. The old ninth circuit, for example, included just Arkansas and Mississippi. The new ninth included Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota instead. Arkansas became part of the sixth, and Mississippi, the fifth.

In 1862, after Campbell’s resignation and McLean’s death, Lincoln filled three open Supreme Court seats with loyal Republicans Noah H. Swayne of Ohio, Samuel Freeman Miller of Iowa and David Davis of Illinois. The high court now had three Republicans and three Southerners.

The 1863 Prize cases tested whether Republicans had managed to secure a friendly court. At issue was whether the Union could seize American ships sailing into blockaded Confederate ports. In a 5-4 ruling, the high court – including all three Lincoln appointees – said yes.

Congressional Republicans spied a way to expand the court while solving what amounted to a geopolitical judicial problem. In 1863, Congress created a new tenth circuit by adding Oregon, which had become a state in 1859, to California’s circuit. The Tenth Circuit Act also added a tenth Supreme Court justice. Lincoln elevated pro-Union Democrat Stephen Field to that seat.

And after Chief Justice Taney died in 1864, Lincoln selected his political rival, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an architect of national monetary policy, to replace him. With Chase, Lincoln succeeded in creating a pro-administration high court.

Unpacking the Court

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who succeeded him, soon began undoing Lincoln’s achievements. He was a Unionist Democrat given the vice presidency as an olive branch to the South. He rewarded that gesture in part by pardoning rank and file Confederates. Johnson also opposed civil rights for newly-freed African Americans.

He also threatened to appoint like-minded judges. But the Republican-dominated Congress blocked Johnson from elevating unreconstructed Rebels to the high court. The Judicial Circuits Act of 1866 shrank the number of federal circuits to seven and held that no Supreme Court vacancies would be filled until just seven justices remained.

The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph’s Democratic editor sighed that at least Republicans “cannot pack the Supreme Court at this moment.”

Noah H. Swayne.
Lincoln appointed three Republicans to the Court in 1862, including then-Judge Noah H. Swayne. Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

Courting paper money

Republicans refused to consider nominating Johnson in 1868, picking General Ulysses S. Grant instead. He won, and after President Grant’s inauguration, Congress passed the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, raising back to nine the number of Supreme Court justices.

Shortly after, Republicans faced a financial problem of their own making.

Beginning in 1862, Congress had passed three Legal Tender Acts – initially to help finance the war, authorizing debt payments using paper money not backed by gold or silver. Then-Treasury Secretary and current Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had crafted the legislation.

But in an 1870 case, Hepburn v. Griswold, Chase reversed himself in a 4-3 decision, ruling the Legal Tender Acts unconstitutional. That threatened national monetary policy and Republicans’ cozy relationship with industries reliant on government sponsorship.

President Grant, preparing for Chase’s ruling, was already working on a political solution. On the day of the Hepburn decision, he appointed two pro-paper-money Supreme Court nominees, William Strong of Pennsylvania and Joseph P. Bradley of New York. Comparing the Republican administration to “a brokerage office,” a Democratic newspaper howled that “the attempt to pack the supreme court to secure a desired judicial decision … (has) brought shame and humiliation to an entire people.”

It also brought a Republican majority to the high court for the first time.

Chief Justice Chase opposed revisiting the paper money issue. But the Supreme Court about-faced, ruling 5-4 in the 1871 cases Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis that the government could indeed print paper money to pay debts. Chase died in 1873, and his successor Morrison Waite championed the Republican pro-business agenda.

Careful what you wish for

Republican transformation of the federal judiciary in the 1860s and 1870s served the party well in the Civil War and constructed a legal framework for a modernizing industrial economy.

But in the end Lincoln and Grant’s high court appointments ended up being disastrous for civil rights. Justices Bradley, Miller, Strong and Waite tended to constrain civil rights protections like the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of laws. Their rulings in United States v. Cruikshank in 1876 and Civil Rights Cases in 1883 both sounded the retreat on Black civil rights.

In remaking the court in Republicans’ image, the party got what it wanted – but not what was needed to fulfill the promise of “a new birth of freedom.”The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

In ‘The Good Lord Bird,’ a new version of John Brown rides in at a crucial moment in US history

by William Nash, Middlebury

Was abolitionist John Brown a psychopath, a sinner or a saint?

The answer depends on whom you ask, and when.

Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride’s novel of the same name, comes at a time when evolving popular perceptions of Brown have once again gotten people thinking and talking about him.

Since he cemented his place in history by leading a failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, the flinty-eyed militant’s cultural significance has waxed and waned. To some, he’s a revolutionary, a freedom fighter and a hero. To others, he’s an anarchist, a murderer and a terrorist.

My research tracks how scholars, activists and artists have used Brown and other abolitionists to comment on contemporary racial issues.

With the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the president’s push for “patriotic education,” Brown is perhaps more relevant now than at any other time since the dawn of the Civil War.

So which version appears in “The Good Lord Bird”? And what does it say about Americans’ willingness to confront racial oppression?

From farmer to zealot

Born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown was living a relatively undistinguished life as a farmer, sheep drover and wool merchant until the 1837 murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. An outraged Brown publicly announced his dedication to the eradication of slavery. Between 1837 and 1850 – the year of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act – Brown served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, first in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then in the Adirondacks, near the Canadian border.

Gifted a farm by wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Brown settled in North Elba, New York, where he continued helping escaped slaves and assisting the residents of Timbuctoo, a nearby community of fugitive slaves, with their subsistence farming.

In 1855, Brown took his anti-slavery fight to Kansas, where five of his sons had begun homesteading the previous year. For the Browns, the move to “Bleeding Kansas” – a territory riven by violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers – was an opportunity to live their convictions. In 1856, pro-slavery forces sacked and burned the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Outraged, Brown and his sons captured five settlers from three different pro-slavery families living along Pottawatomie Creek and slaughtered them with broadswords.

These brutal murders thrust Brown onto the national abolitionist stage.

John Brown, arms splayed out, triumphantly screams as troops battle behind him.
‘Tragic Prelude,’ a mural painted by John Steuart Curry, depicts John Brown’s role in ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ with the bloodshed, fire and tornado hinting at the coming Civil War.
Wikimedia Commons

For the next two years, Brown led raids in Kansas and went east to raise funds to support his fights. Unbeknownst to all but a few co-conspirators, he was also planning the operation that he believed would deal slavery a death blow.

In October 1859, Brown and 21 followers raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Brown had hoped that both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman would join him, but neither did; perhaps their absences help explain why Brown’s expected uprising of enslaved Virginians never materialized. In addition to dooming the initial raid, the absence of a slave army torpedoed Brown’s grand plan to establish mountain bases from which to stage raids on plantations throughout the South, which he referred to as taking “the war to Africa.”

In the end, Harpers Ferry was a debacle: Ten of his band died that day, five escaped, and the remaining seven – Brown included – were tried, imprisoned and executed.

The myth of John Brown

From Pottawatomie to the present, Brown has been something of a floating signifier – a shape-shifting historical figure molded to fit the political goals of those who invoke his name.

That said, there are certain instances in which opinions coalesce.

In late October 1859, for instance, he was roundly vilified and decried as a violent madman. The outrage was so strong that five of the Secret Six – his most ardent supporters and active financial backers – denied association with Brown and condemned the raid.

John Brown kisses a Black baby on the way to his execution.
In his circa 1884 painting ‘The Last Moments of John Brown,’ Thomas Hovenden depicts Brown as a martyr.
profzucker/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

But by that December, the cultural tide shifted in Brown’s favor. His jailhouse interviews and abolitionist missives, published in papers ranging from The Richmond Dispatch to the New-York Daily Tribune, galvanized admiration for Brown and amplified Northern horror over the evils of slavery. Historian David S. Reynolds deems those documents Brown’s most important contribution to the destruction of American chattel slavery.

Praised and defended by Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared the freedom fighter would “make the gallows glorious like the cross,” Brown was later described as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause. During the Civil War, Union troops sang a tribute to him as they went into battle. For many, he was the patron saint of abolitionism.

Artists, meanwhile, conjured and deployed versions of Brown in service of their work. In the 1940s, painter Jacob Lawrence created a wild-eyed firebrand Brown while Horace Pippin depicted a contemplative, sedentary Brown to showcase their divergent perspectives on Black history.

A young John Brown, freshly shaven, sits at a table in front of an open Bible.
Horace Pippin’s ‘John Brown Reading His Bible’ (1942).
Wikiart

However, during the Jim Crow era, most white Americans – even opponents of segregation – either ignored Brown or condemned him as an anarchist and a murderer, perhaps because the delicate politics of the civil rights struggle made him too dangerous to discuss. For followers of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s philosophy of nonviolence, Brown was a figure to be feared, not admired.

In contrast, Black Americans from W.E.B. DuBois to Floyd McKissick and Malcolm X, faced with waves of seemingly endless white hostility, celebrated him for his willingness to fight and die for Black freedom.

The past three decades brought renewed interest in Brown, with no fewer than 15 books on Brown appearing, including children’s books, biographies, critical histories of Harpers Ferry, an assessment of Brown’s jailhouse months and the novels “Cloudsplitter” and “Raising Holy Hell.”

At the same time, right-wing extremists have invoked his legacy. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for instance, expressed the hope that he would “be remembered as a freedom fighter akin” to Brown.

Yet Brown’s contemporary admirers also include left-wing Second Amendment advocates like the John Brown Gun Club and its offshoot, Redneck Revolt. These groups gather at events like Charlottesville’s 2017 Unite the Right March to protect liberal counterprotesters.

John Brown the … clown?

Which brings us to McBride’s novel, the inspiration for Showtime’s miniseries.

Among the most distinctive features of McBride’s novel is its bizarre humor. Americans have seen a devout John Brown, a vengeful John Brown and an inspirational John Brown. But before “The Good Lord Bird,” Americans had never seen a clownish John Brown.

McBride’s Brown is a tattered, scatterbrained and deeply religious monomaniac. In his ragged clothes, with his toes bursting out of his boots, Brown intones lengthy, discursive prayers and offers obtuse interpretations of Scripture that leave his men befuddled.

We learn all of this from Onion, the narrator, a former slave whom Brown “rescues” from one of the families living on Pottawatomie Creek. At first, all Onion wants is to get back home to his owner – a detail that speaks volumes about the novel’s twisted humor. Eventually, Onion embraces his new role as Brown’s mascot, although he continues to mock Brown’s ridiculously erratic behavior all the way to Harpers Ferry.

Like many reviewers – and apparently Ethan Hawke, who plays Brown in the Showtime series – I laughed loud and hard when I read “The Good Lord Bird.”

That said, the laughter was a bit unsettling. How and why would someone make this story funny?

At the Atlantic Festival, McBride noted that humor could open the way for “hard conversations” about America’s racial history. And Hawke’s hilarious portrayal of Brown, along with his commentary about the joys of playing this character, suggests he shares McBride’s belief that humor is a useful mechanism for fostering discussions about both slavery and contemporary race relations.

While one might reasonably say that the history of American race relations is so horrific that laughter is an inappropriate response, I think Hawke and McBride may be on to something.

One of humor’s key functions is to change people’s way of seeing, to open the possibility for a different understanding of the subject of the joke.

“The Good Lord Bird” gives readers and viewers a mechanism for seeing past the historical Brown’s violence, which is the defining feature of most iterations of him and the basis for most judgments of his character. For all of Brown’s madness, for all of his commitment to ending slavery, his care and affection for Onion show that he is fundamentally kind – an attribute that invests him with an appealing humanity more powerful than any physical blow he strikes.

Given all of the cultural baggage that John Brown has carried since Pottawatomie, giving audiences a means of empathizing with him is no mean feat.

Perhaps it will help Americans move the needle in the ongoing struggle for racial understanding – an outcome that’s as necessary now as it was in 1859. The Conversation

The trailer for Showtime’s ‘The Good Lord Bird.’

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Trump rally in Tulsa, a day after Juneteenth, awakens memories of 1921 racist massacre

Editorial note by Randall Hill, Court.rchp.com

The opening scene of HBO's "Watchmen" begins with a powerful depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Last year, when "Watchmen" aired, many people were shocked to learn for the first time this atrocity actually happened.

In honor of Juneteenth, HBO has made all nine episodes of "Watchmen" available to stream for free through Sunday on HBO.com and Free On Demand.


by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta

For only the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You would be forgiven for thinking Tulsa is a sleepy town “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” in the words of the musical Oklahoma!.

But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was jarred by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The city is on edge. Emotions are raw. There’s anxiety about a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking even deeper in the collective psyche is a fear that history could repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will gather close to a neighbourhood still reckoning with a white invasion that claimed hundreds of Black lives.

In this June 15, 2020, photo, people walk past a Black Wall Street mural in the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla. Dozens of blocks of Black-owned businesses were destroyed by a white mob in deadly race riots nearly a century ago. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

A Trump rally near a site of a race massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the matter of timing. The rally was to be held on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the day slaves in the western portion of the Confederacy finally gained their freedom.

Normally, Juneteenth in Tulsa is one big party, the rare event that brings white and Black Oklahomans together. But fears about spreading COVID-19 led organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests over the murder of George Floyd. During those demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck ran through a blockade of traffic, causing one demonstrator to fall from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

COVID-19 cases surging

To make a bad situation even worse, the city is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have acknowledged that the increase in new cases, mixed with close to 20,000 people packed into an arena, is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks during a news conference at police headquarters. (Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP)

Some of Mayor G.T. Bynum’s biggest supporters began pleading with him to cancel the event. Bynum is of that rarest of species, a Republican who has staked part of his political legacy on combating racism. It was Bynum who shocked the white establishment by ordering an investigation into potential mass grave sites from the 1921 massacre, even as many Republicans accused him of opening old wounds.

Faced with the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, however, Bynum equivocated. Bynum found himself under attack from former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that it would change the date of the rally to June 20 “out of respect” for Juneteenth. It was a small victory for protesters, but some were further enraged by Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s murder and a Trump campaign rally.

Reminiscent of another mayor

The mayor’s impotence has also brought back memories of 1921. The mayor then, T.D. Evans, found himself unable — or unwilling — to stand between an angry white mob ginned up over fears of a “Black uprising” and a Black community demanding racial equality.

Evans saw the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. As the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a Black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans, and many like him, did little. “Despite warnings from Blacks and whites that trouble was brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) remained mostly silent.”

In this 1921 file image provided by the Greenwood Cultural Center, Mt. Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre. (Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World via AP)

One historical parallel with 1921 stands out above the rest: the power and influence of “fake news” to mobilize alienated voters.

While much has been made of a revolution of social media and YouTube to undercut the gatekeepers of traditional media, a false news article was the most proximate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921, with an unproven allegation that a Black man, Dick Rowland, had tried to rape a white woman in a downtown elevator. The dog-whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to set off calls for a lynching of Rowland.

Hundreds killed

A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. The Tribune had been stoking fears of a “Black uprising” for months, running stories of race mixing, jazz and interracial dancing at Black road houses.

A few Blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed Blacks made the white mob direct its fury at a bigger target — the Black section of town, Greenwood.

By the dawn of June 1, 1921, Greenwood lay in ruins, with hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation did not come as a surprise to those who had watched the rise of xenophobia during the First World War and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the screening of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 at the White House.

Trump reaches into his suit jacket to read remarks following the events in Charlottesville, Va. He defended white supremacists following a Unite the Right rally that turned violent. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Tulsa, and the nation, had been primed for racial violence by a white supremacist media and presidential administration. Many well-intentioned people stood idly by, hoping the trouble would soon blow over. It did not.

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. During the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump rallying tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.