Free State Men Coming Together

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

The convention-goers at Lawrence could not decide if they went too far or not too far enough. Jim Lane pressed them not to anger other states and find some middle road in a struggle against proslavery men who wanted them silenced, imprisoned, excluded from politics, or driven from the state. A Mr. Holliday insisted that they had gone down the same impotent path as the free state movement had before by meeting, having speeches, and resolutions. None of that had accomplished anything. They must instead organize military companies. Martin F. Conway considered their gathering a party affair and didn’t think it proper that they go on to write a constitution.

The discussions continued on Wednesday, August 15. After notes about the opening prayer and reading of the minutes, the Herald of Freedom reports that the convention took up Charles Robinson’s second proposed resolution. This one declared the acts of the proslavery legislature illegitimate and thus not binding. As James Lane first rose to object to just such a resolution, he rose and submitted an amendment to it that the convention referred to committee. Then Mr. Holliday had his say again:

Mr. Holliday spoke briefly, but to the point, upon the resolution, and said he was glad that during the night the conflicting elements of the day previous had been harmonized, that he believed all parties would united in adopting the Majority report.

Sounds like some combination of back room politics and horse trading carried the day. The paper recounts several others declaring their support, if with some cavils about wording. A Reverend Gilpatrick struck a note of sympathy with moderates by reiterating the theme Charles Robinson took up back on the Fourth of July:

The question is not whether we will have slaves in Kansas; but whether we will be slaves ourselves. A worse than Vandal horde are riveting chains upon us. For myself, I will not consent they shall do it. I would rather go to a southern plantation and labor by the side of the meanest slave, and be compelled to toil for life, than submit to the degradation and kind of enslavement proposed to be heaped upon us.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Robinson himself, who came with all his Massachusetts abolitionist baggage, struck a similarly conciliatory, coalition-building note in taking up Conway’s scruples. The Herald of Freedom reported:

He could not consent that a movement for framing a State Constitution should originate in this Convention. He would be happy to meet with a Convention of the PEOPLE at large at another time

So everyone got along now. Over the night they talked through their differences and came to a meeting of the minds. But there remained a bone of controversy between them. That matter deserves its own post, which will come Monday.

Eager and Reluctant Revolutionaries

Paschal & Eudora Fish, courtesy of Wikipedia user Bhall87

Paschal & Eudora Fish, courtesy of Wikipedia user Bhall87

Parts 1, 2, 3

The adoption of the first of Charles Robinson’s committee’s resolutions by the Lawrence convention did not signal an end to dissent among the free state ranks. It did, however, win the approval of a party often forgotten in popular history. The Herald of Freedom reports that Paschal Fish, a Shawnee man, rose to speak:

I am glad to see all of you here; I am glad you are laboring to make good laws as your fathers did before you. I am well pleased, very well pleased all day long, with what you have done. I said I was in favor of a free State, and I am not backward to say it.

One can’t miss the distinctions here. Fish might share the politics of the white convention, but he knows all too well that they’ve come to decide their fate in Kansas rather than his. In his five decades, Fish had seen his tribe moved from Ohio to Kansas. Their settlement had to yield to white settlement. It might easily do so again. Indians, according to white Americans, simply had to give way. Such backward folk could not impede the inevitable progress of a more advanced race.

Fish’s statement rejects that idea both at its most literal level, declaring himself no more backward than anyone else, and politically. In adopting antislavery politics and participating in the white man’s convention, he acted as a progressive, forward-looking white man would. Fish had apparently long adopted that strategy. He operated a hotel , a ferry, and had worked for the Army at Fort Leavenworth. If anybody lived up to the nineteenth century humanitarian vision of Indians taking up white culture and integrating into white America, he did. So did many of his fellow Shawnee, who operated farms and otherwise acted just like white settlers. Contemporaries considered them barely Indians at all and credited the white blood in their veins.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Not everyone had quite Fish’s enthusiasm, though. The same Mr. Holliday that wanted Robinson’s resolutions referred to a new committee for revision had a good point about the convention’s activity to date:

Mr. Holliday says the action contemplated is not efficient enough. It is doing over and over again what has been done before. I endorse every sentiment embraced in those resolutions, and I go further, and am in favor of some which were suppressed in the committee recommending the formation of military companies for self-protection.

The had had resolutions before. They had had a convention before. This did not suit Holliday, who could point to just how little success the free state men had so far enjoyed. Couldn’t they see that the time for mere words had passed? But setting up formal military companies seemed still a bridge too far for most.

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Even less provoked some qualms from Martin F. Conway, the free state man who quit his seat in the Assembly before it even met. His “brief remarks” argued

the impropriety of a movement for a State Constitution originating in a Party meeting; and maintaining that such an enterprise should be the work of the people at large.

Would they ever get anything done, save talking? One doesn’t lightly contemplate armed strife and the antislavery party deserve some credit for not rushing to it, occasional bursts of martial rhetoric aside, but in times like theirs attachment to procedural formalities and moderation can lead to utter paralysis. Holliday must have seen that among his fellows. With the record they had assembled, one struggles to argue otherwise.

Fairness demands, however, that we note the diverse and fragile coalition that the free state movement had. They might have benefited from haste, as Holliday suggested, but it might also have split the movement.

More Lawrence Resolutions, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1 and 2

The free state convention at Lawrence, Kansas, considered resolutions authored by Charles Robinson’s business committee. Those resolutions repudiated Kansas’ Assembly, the fruit of fraud and force. They declared themselves true Americans, inheritors of the Revolution oppressed by latter-day redcoats. They took care to embrace the virtues of white republicanism, which would appeal both to more people of Kansas and to the nation at large more than an emphatic antislavery or abolitionist position would. They did oppose bringing slavery to Kansas, but repeatedly proclaimed their fidelity to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that ordained the people of Kansas could vote it in or out. As the people of Kansas, they chose the latter but accepted the principle that a fair election could decide such things. Kansas had enjoyed no such election. Even proslavery Americans, as faithful exponents of white republican self-governance should feel sympathy with them.

Aside from all that, and their embrace of Andrew Reeder as a political martyr to their cause, Robinson’s committee proposed this revealing resolution:

We regard it, in this crisis, as incumbent upon the people of Kansas to set aside all differences of political opinion, to cultivate a comprehensive and intimate intercourse with each other, to effect a thorough union, and otherwise prepare for the common defense.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

That refrain appeared in the previous Lawrence convention’s resolutions as well. Back on June 30, the Herald of Freedom reported:

We regret to learn that measures were taken by a few persons on Wednesday evening last, to organize the Democratic party in this Territory. Such a movement can result in no good to any one, but may do much damage. There is but one issue pending in Kansas, and that issue must be settled before others are precipitated upon us. The movement looks to us like an effort to suppress the public will, and we hope it will not be successful.

In light of this recent history, the resolution might as well have read: “No parties but this one; no issue but this one. Are you paying attention Jim Lane?”

Lane aside, the resolution speaks to the awareness on the part of the free state men that they did not form a happy collective, all of one mind and perfectly united. They had not forgotten their politics when they crossed over from Missouri. They agreed that they did not want slavery in Kansas, but not necessarily on anything else. Like the Republican party on the national level, opposition to slavery formed the lowest common denominator that united them and just like the national Republicans, they knew that the further and harder they pressed away from it the more they risked their new coalition.

Party activities could help strengthen bonds and smooth over differences, of course. People who work together in common cause get used to one another and find themselves more inclined to accommodate one another, or so people with healthy social lives tell me. The Lawrence Convention made for just that kind of activity, but it might go down like the previous one as an isolated event. Robinson’s resolutions proposed otherwise:

we consider the attempt to establish a Territorial form of government in this Territory, as thus far an utter failure; and that the people of the Territory should, at some convenient period, assemble, at their several places of holding elections in the various Districts of the Territory, and elect Delegates to a Convention to form a State Constitution for the State of Kansas, with the view to an immediate State organization, and application, at the next session of Congress, for admission into the American Union, as one of the States of the American Confederacy.

This effort would entail far more than a few isolated meetings that passed rousing, if impotent, resolutions.

The Herald of Freedom reports some dissent from the proposed resolutions. James Lane suggested sending the committee back to rewrite the whole slate. A Mr. Holliday wanted an entirely new committee to go to work. But their proposals failed and the first resolution, condemning the election fraud and violence, went through with unanimous approval.

More Lawrence Resolutions, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Part One

The Lawrence Convention’s business committee submitted a set of resolutions for the approval of the general membership. These commenced with a reiteration of the free state party’s grievances over stolen elections and the draconian rule of the proslavery party. It transpires that people tend to object when one outlaws the expression of their ideas, excludes them from the political process, and requires them to swear oaths contrary to their conscience to as much as practice law or serve on a jury. Doing so on the back on an election one also stole by fraud and force, oddly enough, does not soften the blow.

In order to both accommodate more moderate members within the free state movement and make their cause appear less sectional and antislavery to the wider nation, which would have to approve of the free state constitution the convention proposed to write and submit to Congress, they situated themselves in the tradition of the American revolution and aligned themselves with just-former governor Andrew Reeder in his dispute with the Assembly of Kansas. While his enemies had painted him as a diehard abolitionist, to others the Pennsylvanian might still look sufficiently like his moderate self to defuse charges that a tiny band of fanatical abolitionists had once again disrupted the harmony of the nation.

The free state men though highly enough of Reeder and his freshly martyred career that they devoted a further resolution to him:

the people of Kansas can never be unmindful of the deep debt of gratitude we owe to Andrew H. Reeder for the firmness, ability, and integrity, shown in the discharge of his duty as Executive officer of this Territory.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

I don’t know about ability and firmness, at least until men started pointing guns at him, and one must wonder a bit at his land speculations even if inclined toward charity, but Reeder did have a shred or two of integrity. He had come to Kansas bent on putting popular sovereignty into practice. The white male people of Kansas would vote to have or exclude slavery. When he saw that the proslavery men would not settle for that, but would happily take the help of proslavery Missourians to work their will on Kansas, majorities or otherwise, he did what he could to stop them. This came at considerable personal risk, in addition to the political costs. Reeder might have lacked the experience to realize that Franklin Pierce had his back when he took those risks, but he took them all the same. The free state men had good reason to think well of their former governor.

Furthermore, his August 15 dismissal left Reeder without much to do in Kansas. Unlike the other free state men, events had made Andrew Reeder famous. By encouraging him to align with them, the antislavery party could win a high-profile spokesman.

More Lawrence Resolutions, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

James Lane, former congressman who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, former Kansas Democratic Party organizer, and at least arguably former proslavery man stood before the convention of free state men at Lawrence on the afternoon of August 14, 1855, and told them to adopt a moderate course. They should repudiate only the acts of the bogus legislature which subverted popular sovereignty, not the body itself or all its enactments. This middle road would, he imagined, avoid inflaming passions against them and might ease through the free state constitution they sought to write for Kansas.

The Herald of Tribune does not report the words said against Lane’s proposal, but it clearly did not go over well. The convention went on to consider resolutions recommended by its business committee, presented by chairman Charles Robinson. They commenced with a lengthy preamble telling anybody who somehow missed the previous year about the many woes they suffered at the hands of election stealing Missourian hooligans. Robinson proposed to the convention that they did not care for such treatment. They deemed the hijacked elections of March

one of the greatest outrages upon the laws of the land, and the rights of free citizens, ever attempted in this country; and the Legislature now in session on the borders of Missouri-the off spring of that invasion, and the inheritor of all its qualities of insolence, violance, and tyranny-as a living insult to the judgment and feelings of the American people, and derogatory to the integrity and respectability of the Federal authority.

Thus, the second proposed resolution held:

we indignantly repel the pretensions of that Legislature to make laws for the people of Kansas; that are regard it as acting entirely without the authority of law, not only in consideration of its having been elected against law, and in violation of the rights and will of the people, by armed men from a foreign State, but because its course, since its meeting and organization, has been utterly regardless of those conditions and requirements of the organic act, essential to a valid discharge of legislative functions, and such as has effected a complete forfeiture of any technicality of law by which, at first, it may have been supported.

By expanding the case against the legislature from the method of its election to include also its acts, and helpfully incorporate Andrew Reeder’s dispute with it into their grievances, the free state men could present their case as something not purely sectional, not purely about slavery, but rather as a general assault on the right of self-governance. That might give a senator or two representing the South sufficient cover to vote to admit a free Kansas to the Union. It further represented the views of a more moderate constituency within Kansas that honestly did not much care about slavery, or had even supported it, but came over to the free state side due to the proslavery party’s undemocratic methods.

If that did not appeal sufficiently to universal American values, then Robinson’s resolutions had more:

as men, born in a land of liberty, trained to the precepts of freedom, and alive to those inspiring sentiments which have prompted, in all ages, heroic resistance to tyrants; as descendants of those, who, in 1776, braved the power of the mightiest monarchy on earth, rather than submit to foreign thraldom, we repudiate this insolent attempt to impose upon us a government by foreign arms; and pledge to each other, as our fathers did of old, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors,” to a resistance of its authority.

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

Any hope for universal appeal had to come with qualification, though. The men at Lawrence could hardly have missed that the proslavery side employed the same totems, going all the way back to Benjamin Stringfellow’s claim that pauper mercenaries would seize Kansas from its rightful owners. We tend to forget one side or the other when remembering past controversies over what sort of country we have, or wish to have. In all such struggles the real debate hangs on not whether “American values” shall prevail, but rather which set of American values shall. Then some future generation can come along and agree with the victorious side, declaring it American and excommunicating the rest. Winners and losers alike write history, provided they survive, but however they won and whatever their cause we inherit the outcome and thus come to see it as natural and the other side as foreign every bit as much as the Stringfellows saw slavery as natural and the Robinsons and Wakefields saw freedom as the same.

Jim Lane’s Moderation

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The Lawrence Convention of August 14 and 15, 1855, had virtually every prominent free state man in Kansas put in an appearance. They elected their officers, made a few speeches, and got to work. For a nineteenth century mass meeting, this meant producing resolutions for publication.

But not everyone rushed to the revolutionary banner. As George W. Brown reported in his Herald of Freedom for August 18, they had disagreements amongst themselves. One of particular note came in the afternoon session, when a Colonel James H. Lane spoke.

Lane rose to make a curious argument to a decidedly put-upon minority, albeit one far too common:

If I believed a prayer from me, for you, would do any good, it would be that you might be imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the caution of Washington, and the justice of Franklin. I am glad to see so many here this inclement day. It requires wisdom-it requires manhood to restrain passion. I say it as a citizen fo Kansas, I wish we had wisdom to-day. There is the existence of a nation hanging upon the action of the citizens of Kansas. Moderation, moderation, moderation, gentlemen!

What would moderation even mean at this point? Doubtless well aware that his reputation preceded him, Lane had to deal with it if he expected anybody to take his advice seriously:

It is represented that I came to Kansas to retrieve my political fortunes; but gentlemen should know that I was urgently solicited to be a candidate for another term to Congress, but I positively declined. I would vote for the Kansas-Nebraska bill again. I desire Kansas to be a free state. I desire to act with my brethren, but not in a manner to arouse the passions of the people of other States. It would not repudiate the Legislature, but the acts of that Legislature which contravene the right of popular sovereignty.

But James Lane had voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He then represented Indiana in the House. I would not take his protests that people wanted him to run for Congress again too seriously, considering the beating he and his fellow Democrats in the North took for their votes. Only seven Democrats who, like Lane, voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and represented the North retained their seats. One can’t blame a calculating man for not wanting to run those odds.

Lane came to Kansas and immediately set about organizing a Democratic party. This drew opprobrium from the previous Lawrence convention. Alice Nichols quotes him in Bleeding Kansas as equally willing to “buy a nigger as a mule.” Only when he learned that Kansas would probably not become a slave state, if her people had any say, did he change sides. One should keep in mind that moderation, of whatever form one could find in a time when the mere existence of free soil Kansans aroused the passions of both proslavery Kansans and Missourians, would give him fewer difficulties in a revived political career.

The appeal for moderation went over about as well as Lane’s attempts to get the Kansas Democratic Party going. Brown reports:

The President was loudly called for and replied to the remarks of Col. Lane. The sheet containing his and perhaps other remarks, was mislaid or lost.

Mr. Bronson made some very pointed remarks by way of a rejoined, to the last speaker, which was loudly cheered.

I wish we had those remarks, but we work with the sources we have. Lane asked the free state movement to discard the strategy they had developed over the past summer. Furthermore, if he stood on the Kansas-Nebraska Act then his embrace of a legislature that owed its membership to massive election fraud seems decidedly perverse. He would soon decide that this moderation suited neither Kansas nor Jim Lane.

Another Lawrence Convention

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

With a string of defeats under their belt that would make the most optimistic man wince, antislavery Kansans could clearly not persist as they had in making protests and pledging resistance. They had to actually resist if they hoped to accomplish anything, save perhaps making themselves into a sad story for northern newspapers. Sympathy would not beat the slave power.

The Herald of Freedom reported, in its August 18, 1855 issue, on a new convention at Lawrence. Declaring that

The people had long since determined to repudiate the legislature of Missouri; but the great question with them seemed to be, what should be done when the acts of that body of men in session at the Shawnee Mission should be repudiated. The way is now clear. A State Constitution must be adopted, and submitted to Congress.

In calling their foe the legislature of Missouri and refraining even from that when discussing the Assembly of Kansas, they framed the issue clearly. They represented Kansas. The others, wherever they lived and whatever they said, did not. To adopt Kansas as one’s home meant adopting them as its voice and their politics as one’s own. Disregarding the bogus legislature elected by fraud, they would make their own Kansas and dare the nation to deny them the fruits of white male self-government.

Rarely has it been our good fortune to mingle with a body of men where so great an amount of talent was congregated as on this occasion. From five to six hundred persons, from the most distant parts of the Territory, were in session. They advised together, and acted like freemen bent on a great purpose.

The Herald of Freedom reported that the convention-goers resolved differences among themselves,

all agreed upon the necessity of energetic action, and of doing something to redeem ourselves from our present thraldom. -Cool deliberation produced unity of action. To-day, look out upon the Territory where you may, and not a particle of division is seen among the Free State party.

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

The paper then proceeded to a detailed report of the convention. Elected officers included John A. Wakefield, who wrote a memorial on the movement’s behalf in addition to serving as one of its vice-presidents, and Martin F. Conway. Charles Robinson found himself on the business committee, charged with drawing up resolutions. G.W. Brown, the Herald of Freedom’s editor, served as one of the secretaries. The convention received and read a letter from Samuel D. Houston, who had won his seat in the Kansas Assembly fairly back in March but resigned it in protest. A Reverend Lovejoy, relative of the white abolitionist movement’s first martyr, spoke to the convention. If the Lawrence convention did not include every single prominent antislavery man in Kansas, it at least came close.

A Mr. Patterson, perhaps George Park’s partner in the Industrial Luminary, informed the convention that

the time had come to be up and doing something-acting-words would not do the work. Every person, man, woman or child-slaveholder or freeman-is satisfied that if slavery is not a moral evil it is a political evil, and something should be done for its eradication.

So abolitionists, who considered slavery a moral evil, and antislavery men who considered it a political evil, came together to do something at last.

Dark Days for Free Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

If one liked Kansas well enough to stick around, but did not like slavery, the history of the territory to date gave cause only for lamentation. Missourians had stolen their election for delegate to Congress back in November of 1854. The March elections for the legislature brought more Missourians and more theft. Both invasions came with the threat of violence. The Missourians even brought along a pair of cannons. On the second occasion, they carried out their threats and attacked antislavery voters.

Governor Andrew Reeder offered antislavery Kansans a thin sliver of hope in setting aside some of the legislative elections and, with one exception, the Missourians stayed home for those. That momentary respite sowed the seeds for further injuries, as the proslavery party did not accept Reeder’s power to set aside contested elections. When the legislature finally met at the start of July, 1855, the majority bent took up the task of expelling men who owed their elections to the fair contests that Reeder called in May. Each seat so vacated came into the possession of the victor of a fraudulent election back in March. This left all of two antislavery men untouched, one of whom resigned in advance of the session. The other tried to make the best of a bad situation, but soon gave up himself.

This left the free state men already in deep trouble, Franklin Pierce then dismissed their sometime ally Andrew Reeder, who had feuded with the legislature, and so left them completely without friends in the territorial government. Even before all that, they knew things looked bad and delegates from some districts met at Lawrence in advance of the legislature’s opening to discuss strategy. They rejected the authority of Kansas’ illegally elected legal legislature and declared for resistance. As the summer went on, the proslavery men imposed a draconian set of laws to defend and entrench slavery, eagerly sacrificing what men from free states considered their own sacred rights in the process. Resistance looked more reasonable than ever.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

But what kind of resistance? The Assembly’s laws effectively outlawed something as simple as speaking out against slavery, to say nothing of organized resistance on those grounds. The antislavery party could say that they rejected those laws as illegitimate, but they would have trouble accomplishing much from inside a prison cell. Yet if they did not organize and act, they would accomplish nothing. They made protests to Franklin Pierce. They held a mass meeting on the Fourth of July. Words, however, went only so far. No sternly worded letter to the president would bring them relief. Nor would encouraging one another with dramatic speeches. By late summer, 1855, the time for direct action had come.

The Kansas Slave Code, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

Acts of the Bogus Legislature:

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Greeley’s pamphlet

The Assembly of Kansas had busied itself in writing a remarkably thorough code of laws to suppress antislavery activity and to preserve slavery in the territory’s bounds. They, in the words of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, made a territory where Kansans

could be jailed for reading a paper of free-soil sentiment; they could lose their vote by refusing to take the oath supporting the Fugitive Slave Law, their property for questioning the right of slaveholding, and their lives for aiding a slave to escape.

The test oaths that the bogus legislature preferred demanded fealty to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or rather their selective interpretation of it. Greeley highlights one stark contradiction in particular, in a law governing writs of habeas corpus:

No negro or mulatto, held as a slave within this Territory, or lawfully arrested as a fugitive from service from another State of Territory, shall be discharged, nor shall his right of freedom be had under the provisions of this act.

This ancient freedom, the great writ itself, did not extend to any slave. If it did, then slaves might petition for relief on the grounds of their wrongful imprisonment. Such devices had freed fugitives in the North. The proslavery men could not allow that, even if their grandfathers had written habeas corpus into the original Constitution. The right which secured all others could not extend to people who deserved no rights.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Greeley went back into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and shared what it said on the subject with his readers:

Except also that a writ of error or appeal shall also be allowed to the Supreme Court of the United States, from the decision of the said supreme court created by this act, or of any judge thereof, or of the district courts created by this act, or any judge thereof, upon any writ of habeas, involving the question of personal freedom.

That section of the law, like the one requiring voters to actually reside in Kansas, went right out the window. With it, at least on paper, went the last hope of freedom even on the most personal scale for black Americans in Kansas.

Across the border in Missouri, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow looked on the work of his brother John, Speaker of the House, and others with great admiration. One can imagine him rubbing his hands in delight like the black-caped villain of the proverbial silent movie did as he put the screaming woman down on the train tracks. Such comic fancies aside, he felt quite proud enough to boast of his movement’s success to the Montgomery, Alabama Register, as Nichols relates:

They now have laws more efficient to protect slave property than any State in the Union.l These laws have just taken effect, and have already silenced the Abolitionists; for, in spite of their heretofore boasting, they know they will be enforced to the very letter and with utmost vigor. Not only is it profitable for slave holders to go to Kansas, but politically it is all-important.

In Observance of MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As usual, a date crept up on me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a secular saint, admired by all Americans who don’t want their neighbors to think they’ve got a white hood in the closet. He deserves such treatment possibly more than any American political figure since Lincoln. The time when half the nation more or less wanted the man dead has largely gone down the memory hole, just like all the people who voted for Richard Nixon vanished after November of 1963 and again in the fall of 1974. We don’t care to remember these things about ourselves. Thus we rewrite our pasts to something more convenient, putting everyone into the hero’s shoes. Confederates become abolitionists, from Lee on down. Everybody marched with King, even if they continue running against him to this very day. Most white hoods live in minds rather than closets.

We find saints, as Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce had it, by revising and editing dead sinners. Like everybody, King had his flaws. Infamously, he had extramarital affairs. It usually comes up in deliberate attempts to derail discussion of substantive issues. This suits many people just fine, as they would prefer almost anything to having that discussion. I raised the issue here not to get it out of the way or to heap aspersions on a man I consider a genuine hero. We all have human flaws. Expecting perfection might sound idealistic of us, but more often it serves as an excuse for self-defeating cynicism or, worse still, indifference or outright opposition to attempts to ameliorate persistent injustices.

But King’s affairs do run together with his activism in one way. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which earned its bones suppressing black social justice movements, tried to use them as leverage to either induce King’s suicide or force him to quit his activism. The Bureau did so as part of a campaign far older than itself by the American establishment to preserve white supremacy. It might sound perverse to remember King’s enemies on a day set aside to remember him, and use a personal failing of his to do it, but we remember King because we want his life and work to say something about us.

I submit that our forgetting says something about us as well. King might not appreciate our airing his dirty laundry in the process, but I don’t think he would mind the attention drawn to the machinery of white power. You can read the full letter the FBI sent to King here. Beverly Gage’s accompanying essay puts it into some modern context. Jeet Heer, who you really should follow on twitter, gives a broader view in his essay. The American security state in the 1960s, just as it had for centuries, set itself firmly on the side of the whites and saw its chief task as suppressing the blacks. Very little has changed since.

These things did not come about by mistake, any more than forgetting them did. We have expended tremendous effort in the service of white supremacy and very little to counter it. We have this history, and this present, because we wanted them and worked hard to make them so. More than once we have realigned our politics to preserve them against challenges.

Could we redistribute our striving? If doing the right thing for its own sake does not suffice, then it would at least speak to genuine virtues demonstrated rather than the pretend kind exercised with a yearly ritual observance deprived of all context and rendered into a bland exercise in civic patriotism. It might get easier if we had some more practice.