W.P. Richardson stonewalled when asked about the Blue Lodges. J.C. Prince told some, including that he feared to tell all, but spent much of his testimony making a claim and then qualifying it back nearly to oblivion. Several of his statements read as denials that he hoped the Howard Committee would understand as stating the opposite. John Stringfellow, his proslavery bona fides unassailable, testified at greater length. He began by rehearsing the claim that his brother made all the way back in Negro-Slavery, No Evilthat the free soilers started the whole mess by organizing the Emigrant Aid Society. Before that, thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all expected that Kansas would come into the Union as a slave state.
That proslavery men held this story as orthodox dogma does not mean that they lacked facts on their side. It had always taken affirmative legislation to bar slavery from entering territories. The absence of restriction ensured a future presence all the way back to the Southwest Ordinance that created Tennessee. If popular sovereignty meant, rhetorically, letting the people decide then those who defended it as such had very good reason to know just how the people would decide. Territorial settlement operated on the de facto principle of slavery national and freedom sectional.
Emigrant Aid meant cheating to proslavery Missourians, who then resolved that they would lose Kansas if they stood idle. With the business couched in defensive terms, Stringfellow dated the founding of the Blue Lodges to October, 1854. He might have believed all that himself, though I’ve seen references to Blue Lodges forming in the summer of 1854 and it seems likely that he knew what his brother spent the summer occupied with, but he went on to argue
The members of these societies knew each other, and in public and private pledged to use all honorable means to make Kansas a slave State. They raised no more money than for the incidental expenses of their meetings. The condition of affairs of Kansas were discussed in these meetings. We consulted and talked about the mode of carrying out our object, which was by voluntary emigration. With respect to the then approaching elections means were taken to prevent underhanded advantages, which we feared would be taken to control the elections in favor of the free State party. Part of the means taken was to come into the Territory from Missouri to prevent or counteract illegal voting on the part of hired voters from the east and other free States.
The Howard Committee
These honorable means included carting cannons over the border, attacking polling places, shooting guns at suspected free soil voters, and hiring their own voters, facts that the Committee knew from other witnesses. One could consider paying border ruffians an incidental meeting expense, but it seems much more likely that Stringfellow intended himself understood as denying that any payment for border ruffian activities took place.
Stringfellow testified that the societies, while mostly a Missourian phenomenon, extended into Kansas “to a limited extent”
they were united associations, with officers, and they communicate with other societies through their officers. The design was to direct or advise rather than to assist persons where to settle in the Territory.
Thus the word could get around about where proslavery men had best go to find friends, or needed to go to carry precincts. So things remained until the March elections. Since then
public organizations or aid societies have been formed all through the slave States, so far as I can learn, to enable settlers favorable to the institution of slavery to reach the Territory without assuming any control over their acts after they get here. Several gentlemen have left the Territory and the border of Missouri since March election in 1855, and visited the slaveholding States and addressed the people, urging the importance pecuniarily and publicly of a proslavery emigration to Kansas Territory.
Those organizations did their work well enough, Stringfellow said. He pointed to increased southern emigration in the spring of 1856 as proof, but he put it down
more to the general belief in the importance of such emigration rather than to the societies or Missourians.
Confederate flags came down, or will soon come down, from above state buildings. The Supreme Court upheld human rights thrice over. Saturday, Bree Newsome climbed up a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds and so beat those working within to the chase.
In Charlotte, N.C., authorities say a June 24 fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was the result of arson and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. NBC News reported that more than 75 firefighters were needed to extinguish the three-alarm fire, and an hour passed before the blaze was under control. Two firefighters received medical treatment for heat-related injuries. The church sustained $250,000 in damage, including a collapsed ceiling and significant damage to a space used for a children’s summer camp. The sanctuary was spared, sustaining smoke damage along with the gymnasium.
A June 23 fire at God’s Power Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Macon, Ga., has been ruled as arson, although there is no indication it was a hate crime. As was reported in theMacon Telegraph, the front doors of the church were locked and wired shut when authorities arrived, but a side door was unlocked. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives was called, as is the case with church fires, and authorities also noted that electronics and other air conditioning equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries. A $10,000 reward is available through the Georgia Arson Hotline for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.
We don’t have all the information yet to count each of the six as an act of white terrorism against one of the few institutions that white Americans have permitted to black Americans. With numbers so small, almost anything could come down to a coincidental combination of fires. The investigations have not yet ruled every burning an arson. People do burn buildings out of simple youthful stupidity. I would like for it to work out that way and for none of these arsons to come as responses to the late move against celebration of the Confederacy. I hope we all would.
The world rarely bends to our hopes. The arc of history only bends toward justice if we bend it. However much I would love to have it all wrong, I expect we will soon learn that at least some set these fires as acts of terror. If we do, I have no doubt that the usual suspects will ascribe each to mental illness and lone wolves. That we just had a calamitous attack launched in defense of white supremacy will fall out of memory as such things usually do. We might even have a rendition of one of the classics of that genre.
Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing
On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan left at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, and a timer, under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . They did this on a Sunday and put the dynamite beneath the front steps. Four girls died. Twenty-two others came away wounded. We can only guess their motives, just as we can only guess what drove Dylann Roof to his own isolated incident indicative of mental illness. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, which fancied itself a journal of respectable conservative opinion as much then as now, had this to say:
The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.
Damn the bombers; they harmed the cause of white power. But since no decent, conservative white person would do something so horrifying as that, the guilty parties must come in the color of skin we most associate with criminality. By linking the bombing with communism, the Review further implied that its “crazed Negro” worked on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. The American Right had long understood it as a communist outfit, after all. But failing all of those, Buckley fell back on the tried and true insistence that the victims had it coming. Whether they themselves stood against the white-imposed, white-dominated status quo or took their cues as past generations imagined rebellious slaves had from the perfidious white reformers, they had brought the violence down on their own heads. Everything worked just fine until Earl Warren integrated the schools.
In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail-that is all. It means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.
The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro : but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.
Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article’s flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.
Mona Charen had it in her to write this in 2015. In 2015, a white man can walk into a black church and murder the people gathered there. In 2015, we still burn churches. None of these deeds requires a white hood to complete, though men in hoods have done their share of burning, shooting, and lynching. All speak to the persistence of the ancient faith of the men who once wore them or who come to work in expensive suits, as well as the men with whips and chains before them. It remains one of the chief issues in our politics. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.
The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol
I set out to further explore Dylann Roof’s inspirations today. I might still do that, but othershavewritten what I might have and probably done a better job of it than I would. For a deeper look at the mechanics of the system of white domination in Rhodesia, this UNESCO document came to my attention via Liam Hogan on twitter.
Instead of that, I’d like to consider a question posed by a fellow blogger. Over at Cenantua, Robert Moore asks, with Confederate flags going down and leaving stores, what falls next? He has a list of continuations on the theme:
We have discussions for the removal of Confederate statuary, that, though without the Confederate flag anywhere thereon.
We have vandalism (I think I’ve seen stories about 3 or 4 monuments so far) on Confederate statuary.
We have discussions about removing the names of Confederate generals from our military bases. (strange I haven’t heard about another base, which is named for a former member, and officer of the national organization of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Give it time, I suppose).
We have vandalism on non-Confederate statuary… the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston. Though Calhoun died in 1850, he was a defender of slavery. Obviously, the “protests” have moved outside the Civil War and Confederate symbolism.
Then, last night, I saw, in the New York Post, a call for removing the film Gone With the Wind, from sales, etc.
I don’t know that Robert would agree with me, but I think most of those sound like really good ideas. Of the list, object to only two and only with qualifications.
Though I see essentially zero risk of it, I would oppose any kind of legal ban on the sale of Gone with the Wind or other such works. I don’t think this requires much explanation, so suffice it to say that I hold to the school that the answer to bad speech comes best in the form of more and better speech. However, if retailers choose to adopt policies of not selling the book, Confederate flags, and so forth then I have no objection at all. Indeed, I approve of their doing so insofar as their private bans don’t entail also such a broad net as to sweep in serious and respectable works which have the flag on their covers. I don’t mind at all if they relegate Confederate propaganda and other species of dressed-up racism to the less reputable outfits where they belong.
That leaves vandalism. I’ve read of several cases where statues have had pro-equality slogans and criticism spray painted on their pedestals. I object, but very weakly so. Cleaning the statues will cost money that could go to other things, as Al Mackey points out. The message would be as well expressed by a sign left at the site, and more durably so by getting a market put up beside them. A good message deserves better methods.
A corrective marker could begin by noting that the celebrated individuals won their accolades, including their statues and monuments, for deeds we now find reprehensible and go on to detail their human costs. I quite like the idea of accompanying every statue of Robert E. Lee with a sign reading something to the effect of “This man fought for slavery. For that, in the eyes of past generations, he earned this statue.” The marker could go on to detail Lee’s slave whipping exploit and his personal commitment to the institution’s perpetuity. Make it big and impossible to miss. I don’t expect these markers to spring up very quickly. The latter-day admirers of the Confederacy’s cause will fight them tooth and nail. It took us nine lives on top of fifty years, at least, of activism to take down some flags. The exponents of racial hatred have that much power.
Robert E. Lee
Failing augmentation with corrective markers, I don’t see why we have to keep these monuments at all. I have no objection to their removal to private property or their destruction by the bodies which own them. I would prefer either to their remaining in situ and unaccompanied by correctives. The roads and buildings all can and should have their names changed easily enough. In the place of Confederates and other proslavery men, I would use the names of those who resisted slavery and fought to end it. Ideally, these should come from the history of the area or the area of the person formally honored, and with a preference for enslaved people. Calhoun Street can become Vesey Street. (Though dead ten years too early to become a Confederate, Calhoun won his fame defending slavery just as they did.) For Lee, we can substitute Nat Turner or Gabriel Prosser.
This does not constitute an erasure of history. By renaming buildings, relocating or removing monuments we do not wipe away the past or deny what happened any more than we do by adding correctives. We do, however, change our relationship with the pasts they represent. We don’t name streets, buildings, or erect statues and monuments to people we revile. We do this for people we honor and celebrate. By doing it in a public space, we declare that our communities should take them as exemplars. The people who did the naming and dedicated the statues understood that. They established for themselves and future generations a civic safe space to express their admiration for the literally murderous exponents of white supremacy and slavery above all other concerns. In reversing that, we do the same and carve out a safe, or at least safer, space for black Americans and others who have had the burdens of the nation forced upon them and extracted from their lives often enough.
Where, then, could monuments and memorials to those who fought in the name of slavery and earned their fame in doing so remain? I oppose the removal of educational markers at historical sites. Something like a stone saying this unit fought here serves an obvious use and does not, to my mind, suggest in itself any form of celebration. I would also oppose removing markers from the actual graves of Confederates in cemeteries. Marking a grave doesn’t necessitate making a political statement and replacing all the CSA headstones seems both impractical and unnecessary, though I might support some kind of grant program to descendants who wanted changes made.
Memorials to Confederate soldiers or Confederate dead, on the other hand, do just that. They function just as monuments to individual Confederates do. Whatever element of mourning went into them died with their next of kin and belonged more properly at individual graves regardless. They serve now as calls to celebrate and honor a group of people united solely in their defense of slavery. I class their unaltered, unaugmented maintenance as one of many ways in which we still affirm their cause. If we choose to do that, as we have so often done in the past, then we should expect others to understand us not as making a neutral acknowledgement of our past. Even if we could manage such a thing, we couldn’t do it with celebratory markers.
I hope that, as with the Confederate Battle Flag, when we see such acts we think not of some nebulous and presumed neutral or positive “heritage” but rather of the real price that our attachment to white supremacy has exacted. When we see them we should think, among other things, of scenes like this:
Peter from Louisiana
A hand with a whip in it, slicing out great ribbons of black flesh from the back of Peter Gordon.
Margaret Garner with tears in her eyes as she draws her three-year old daughter close and opens her throat with a knife to spare her a lifetime of rape and torture, then desperately reaching for a coal shovel to spare her three sons. She couldn’t save them in time.
The crowd at a lynching, coming up to the not yet dead bodies of a Luther Holbart and woman they thought his wife, carving off plugs of flesh for souvenirs, once their fingers ran out. They then burned the victims alive. The mob, men, women, and children partook of deviled eggs, lemonade, whiskey, and made a picnic of it.
The headline from the New Orleans States: 3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO. The police turned John Hartfield over to the mob at the scheduled time, four in the afternoon, all very proper and orderly. They burned him alive.
If we still feel like celebrating after that, then we deserve what others think of us. The real erasure and denial of history comes in pretending that we do not celebrate what we do, that the Confederates and their antecedents did not fight for what they did, and that their ideas about race do not have a powerful resonance for far too many Americans today. We all have unfortunate, often horrifying ancestors. It does us no harm to admit to that and may do much good. They had their lives and we have our own. If we insist that judgment of them constitutes judgment of us, then we should also accept that we do so because we want to share in their record rather than depart from it.
Gentle Readers, this post includes selections from the work of modern-day hate groups and the Charleston shooter. I don’t post many warnings for historical horrors, but I both understand and share the sentiment that dealing in more contemporary racism makes for harder reading.
Last week, Dylann Roof acted alone. He walked into a historically black church in Charleston and took nine lives. He had no accomplices in the legal sense, so far as we know. He had many in the moral sense. Supporters of his cause, if not his methods, took to the media to call him mentally ill, a lone wolf, and the architect of an isolated incident. They declared his motives a mystery. With every utterance they breathed another cloud of fog to hide the truth from themselves and the rest of us who have the luxury of not knowing. Another day goes by. Another handful of lives end. The machine of white power grinds along. If it more often consumes lives in less dramatic ways, then that serves to quiet our sleepy consciences.
The system that white American built eased Roof toward his murders by taking the subjugation of black Americans as normal and the supremacy of white Americans as the default. We declare black Americans a them, not an us. We proclaim their blackness inherent, fixed, and of paramount import. The white norm constructs and reinforces itself by declaring blackness deviant and deficient, as if these categories descended from the heavens rather than slavery. For some of us, that pedigree proves their ordaining from on high. But the latest white power hero also had more enthusiastic accomplices. We all partake of the system of passively imbibed hatred. Some of us go a step farther.
Very likely by his own admission, Roof grew up in the system. Like the rest of us, he learned his prejudices:
Living in the South, almost every White person has a small amount of racial awareness, simply beause of the numbers of negroes in this part of the country. But it is a superficial awareness.
The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right.
As a resident of a town well over 90% white, let me assure you that the development of racism does not require the immediate presence of diversity.
Roof insists that he did not grow up racist. But in linking his prior “racial awareness” from before his awakening to hatred with that after, he suggests otherwise. Rather it sounds like he grew up a little bit racist and then did it one better. He did not change sides, but rather seems to have moved from the passive, enabling white supremacy of indifference to injustice through to the active version of defending it. The language Roof uses to describe himself in his superficial phase speaks volumes. “It was obvious” that George Zimmerman rightly murdered Trayvon Martin. He could claim self-defense just from seeing a black boy walking down the street. Such an act seemed so ordinary to Roof that he could not understand any objection to it. Black lives did not matter.
The furor over Zimmerman’s shooting drove Roof to the internet, where he began a more intensive education. Here he met the more active of his accomplices:
The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?
The who? The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the CofCC (Their preferred initialism.) descends directly from the White Citizens’ Councils established as what Thurgood Marshall called an “uptown Klan”. They fought integration just as the Klan did, but put the white hoods in the closet as part of a rebranding. But don’t take the SPLC’s word for it. The CofCC has a website, where they admit in one paragraph that Root acted out of racial hatred, imply drugs fueled his murders, and then top it off with this:
It is unclear what caused Roof to go on the shooting spree. It seems that Roof’s interest in racial politics started only very recently.
The mystery remains. If only Roof had told us in numerous ways just what he intended, like posting a manifesto online. Perhaps there he could give us a genealogy of his beliefs, with concepts or even named organizations that we could follow through about. If he named a website, we could go there and see what it said.
(2) We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.
The CofCC’s Statement of Principles, written and adopted by its leadership and posted on its website, must have no connection at all to these words of Roof’s manifesto:
Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them. And I mean that in multiple ways. Not only did it protect us from having to interact with them, and from being physically harmed by them, but it protected us from being brought down to their level. Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals. The best example of this is obviously our school system.
Nor could the CofCC’s obsession with exaggerated reports of black on white crime, cited by Roof here:
There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.
have any connection with his murders. These words, we must believe, just came about at random. They have no connection to any deeds performed, perhaps not even to policies preferred. People talk, you understand. That Roof told us at the end of his vile manifesto that he would turn thought into action must constitute another of those inexplicable mysteries:
I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.
What on earth could that possibly mean? The CofCC condemns Roof’s murders, as one would expect, but goes on to say that
In his manifesto, Roof outlines other grievances felt by many whites. Again, we utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed. *Ignoring legitimate grievances is dangerous*.
It wouldn’t do for the uptown Klan to admit to the consequences of its propaganda. It also wouldn’t do for them to miss the chance to hint that whatever they had to say for public consumption, those who ignored their “legitimate grievances” about such horrors as race mixing courted danger.
In recognizing all of this, we could easily yield to the temptation to quarantine Roof and the CofCC away. If he did not act alone, then he acted in concert with a paradoxical group lone wolves who have nothing to do with the rest of us. But groups like the CofCC and the Klan don’t just happen any more than mass murder just happens. People join them for a reason. Others make excuses for them for a reason. We do not come into the world as members, but rather learn to hate and learn to hide it from ourselves. In doing that, how many of us follow in Roof’s footsteps, taking our “small amount of racial awareness” and upgrading it as necessary?
Most of us will never shoot a person, but that doesn’t make us innocent. Most of us never join the Army either, but plenty of Americans will support most any war offered up. We might even speak ritual condemnations of structural injustice, but then vote for politicians of both parties who endorse, continue, and strengthen the policies that create the injustice. If we take these acts for granted, then we should accept our share of culpability for their outcomes. Enabling denials and indifference do not exist apart from or independent of more active and violent expressions of hate. Rather they go together hand in glove, an organic whole. Every person who fires a gun, hangs a noose, or wields a whip in the service of white domination has an uncounted multitude behind and to the side. These multitudes speak in myriad ways to the gunman and lyncher: You answer a true and great threat. You do our will, what we dare not. You do nobly and right. Each part of that chorus forms an indispensable element of the song. The performance only ends, for now, with a crescendo of blood and bullets.
The CofCC and others form part of that chorus. Others, who insist in more coded terms that each killing presents us with an inscrutable mystery, don’t sing quite so loudly. But they also have an audience that buys the tickets and fills the seats when the curtain rises. Without the audience, no part of the band would long endure. We come together in these places, as we do in churches and other gathering places, to make our communities. We could patronize other artists and form different communities. Taking the flags down at the cost of nine lives, a century and a half after slavery, makes for a miserably small step in that direction.
We have this stereotype of a racist in white America. The racist, almost always male, embodies just about every trope that we associate with poor white Americans. He comes to us unkempt, wrapped in a Confederate Battle Flag and a white sheet, or a brown shirt and an armband. He nearly always speaks with a southern accent. Such people do exist, just as people who speak with the same accent and fight for racial justice exist. So too to people bearing the totems of success. I’ll have a bit more to say about these upmarket racists tomorrow, but wanted to highlight something I’ve just seen over at Salon.
They had the good sense to ask Eric Foner what he thought about racism in modern America and my sort-of professor had this insight well worth remembering:
The problems of black Americans today, putting aside this terrible event, are rooted in history, but are also rooted in the present. The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo who had been putting blacks into subprime mortgage, until they lost their homes in 2008. It’s the people who will not hire a black person. It’s the people who will not hire a person when they see he has a black-sounding name [on his résumé]. In other words, the point of studying history is to understand its link to the present — but it’s not to displace the problems of the present. It’s not to say this is rooted in history and the slaveowners are responsible for whatever the problem is today.
Our preoccupation with linking things we find disreputable, at least in public, with the trappings of poverty and ignorance both obscures the good work done by good people born in the nation’s most stereotyped region or who didn’t go to elite universities and blinds us to the sophisticated, white collar assaults on the lives of black Americans. We too easily pretend that class has nothing to do with race, ignoring that white Americans have long ensured black Americans remain disproportionately poor. If we condemn racism but do nothing to remedy the economics deprivations and still-extant barriers that drive it, have we done anything at all?
Slavery served as a system of racial control, but enslavers invented race to justify their economic exploitation and bring into solidarity with them poor whites who did not benefit financially from it like the great planters did. We have ended slavery, at least de jure, but the exploitation lives on. Neither removing some flags nor our applauding of the removal will do change that.
It seems that the Confederate Battle Flag on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol will likely come down. If we see the back of the flag as it descends into the proper netherworld of memory, then we should remember how it got there. The flag rose back in 1961 to protest integration and declare the state’s firm commitment to segregation forever. It moved from above the capitol building itself back in 200o. Now it may leave entirely, just as it shall leave the shelves of the nation’s larger retailers. Good riddance.
By these tiny steps, bought most recently at the cost of nine lives, we measure progress. If and when the flag departs, we will congratulate ourselves again on the death of racism. Most white Americans will probably not consider that it took an outbreak of Reconstruction-level violence to move a piece of cloth. This says many things about us, none of them good.
The flag presently adorns a Confederate veteran’s memorial. That might seem like a good excuse to keep it. The legislators who voted it over to that spot and then required a supermajority to move it again, certainly thought so. By placing it there, they dared future critics to disrespect the memory of the dead by challenging it again, or fall silent and so accept the flag. That sounds like an easy choice to me. When probably every other flag in South Carolina flew at half-mast, the Confederate Battle Flag flew high. Given the cause for which the veterans in question risked their lives, one could imagine it flying a bit higher. Did it grow a metaphorical inch taller for each death?
One can argue that the flag sits in an appropriate context. The veterans fought and died under it, or one like it, so why not fly it over their memorial? If the flag can’t fly there, then where could it fly? I don’t know why “nowhere” would prove unacceptable. Private individuals can do what they like with their flags on their property, but the grounds of governments buildings belong to, and inherently speak for, all of us. The foes of white supremacy should not deny to themselves this particular power that the cause’s friends exercised in decades past. They erected the flag, and the monuments and all the rest, to celebrate their crusade and venerate its martyrs. Those who preached the subjugation of black Americans had their way and spoke on behalf of us all by putting up their flags. We can choose other crusades with other martyrs and try the same by taking them down.
US Navy sailors visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 1933
We could probably do with some national soul-searching about the Confederate monuments too. In saying that I don’t mean to insult or offend the descendants of Confederate soldiers. But I don’t know how to separate a soldier from the cause he or she fought for, without reducing the soldier to a meaningless object of blind veneration. This strikes me as doing far greater violence to their memory than simply ignoring them, if not quite so much as outright lying about them. To make the point, I’d like to consider it in the context of a different situation:
In Japan, one can visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors the sacrifices of all those, Japanese and otherwise, who died in the service of the Empire of Japan. While Japan still has an Emperor, he lacks even the limited reserve powers that the usual constitutional monarch enjoys. Thus the Empire of Japan generally runs from the Meiji Restoration of the late 1860s until 1947. In that time, Japan waged, brutal imperialist wars. While Americans remember Pearl Harbor and the rest, Imperial Japan did far worse to China. The Japanese military employed chemical and biological weapons against the Chinese, something they dared not attempt against European or American enemies. Those enshrined within include not just ordinary soliders, but more than a thousand convicted war criminals, fourteen of whom postwar tribunals found guilty of Class A war crimes. One goes to the shrine to venerate their spirits.
Japan’s wartime victims and their descendants don’t look fondly upon the shrine. The history of close government cooperation with it and repeated visits by Japanese prime ministers do little to help. Nor does the shrine’s embrace of Japan’s native version of the Lost Cause in the attached museum.
I suspect most Americans would read this as a sign that Japan hasn’t really moved that far beyond its wartime self. Something has gone wrong, or never gone right, with Japan for such a state of affairs to persist. When it makes the news here, the stories generally run in that vein. The fact that relatively few Japanese people actually frequent the shrine or endorse its history doesn’t enter into things. Nor does it matter that the shrine operates as a private establishment and thus the Japanese state can’t just order changes. But even allowing these nuances, the shrine should give us cause for some concern.
If we can have that concern about Japan, why can’t we have it at home? I don’t mean that we should just take crowbars and bulldozers to Confederate monuments with glee, or that we should root around national parks removing the markers for this regiment and that, but they could do with a harder look. Many of them have inscriptions rife with Lost Cause tropes. The Confederate Soldier’s Monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol declares that those it honors “died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution” without saying the only right of any state actually in question. Many other monuments, in Texas and elsewhere, do much the same.
These displays tell a story and we should consider if we want to keep telling it or not. How does it differ from the story taught at the Yasukuni Shrine and museum? If we look askance at one, then how can we not do the same of the other? We will have shrines one way or another. The ones we choose speak volumes. If we have chosen poorly before, we can choose differently now. No law of nature demands we go on as we have. Only we can demand that.
should not like to tell all I know about this society, because I think it would result to me injury; and that is one reason, though not the only one, why I dislike to answer in relation to the matter. One other reason is, that the members of the society take oaths to keep secrets those matters.
But all the same, Prince would testify some of what he knew:
I know that there was a secret society in Missouri. I knew it in the fall of 1854; but I do not know whether it exists now [May, 1856] or not. I think of the party who went to Fort Scott in November, 1854, to vote, some ten or fifteen were members of this society, perhaps all, for aught I know. The society is a pro-slavery society, and the object is to get none but pro-slavery men into office; and, I suppose, it had reference to making Kansas a slave State. They had signs and pass-words, or something similar, by which we would know each other to be members of that society. The members of this society take an oath when they join the society, administered by one of the officers of the society. The subject of the oath is to keep secret the proceedings of the society, and make Kansas a slave State, the best way they can.
The free soil men of Kansas may not have required the illustrative example of their opponents when organizing their own groups, but if they did then they clearly had it. However, this tells us not much more than we could have gathered from reading eyewitness testimony of the election stealing or Negro-Slavery, No Evil. More interesting, Prince testifies to the scope of the Blue Lodges:
I do not know that this pro-slavery society exists in any State but Missouri; and I do not recollect that I have ever heard. I have understood that the society existed pretty generally in Missouri, though I think it has pretty much died away now. […] I do not know that they ever raised any money, or paid any expenses for that purpose, or ever sent out any communications for the purpose of getting up votes here. They discussed in the lodges the question of sending voters here to make Kansas a slave State. I do not know, of my own knowledge, of how many belonged to the society in Missouri, but I have heard the number, though I do not now recollect it, though it was a very large number.
Prince’s hemming and hawing comes right before he invokes the danger to himself. I get the impression that he remembered rather more than he let on. He alternates between making a claim and swiftly walking it back. He remembers that a large number of people belonged to the group, but can’t say how many. He thinks the society existed and operated, but also that it no longer does. He knows they went to Kansas, but can’t testify that they received payment for it. Whether the Blue Lodges had died away by spring of 1856 or not, Prince still feared them if he said too much.
Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who had bought his freedom with lottery winnings, planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. He and a small band of co-conspirators would quickly seize arms and then distribute them to Charleston’s slave majority. Together they would kill the whites who owned Vesey’s wife and children, who had owned him, and who did own others. Freedom would come on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, later rescheduled to midnight of June 16 thus setting the fight for June 17. A preacher as well as a carpenter, Vesey had used his ministry as well as family and other social ties to recruit for his insurrection. Someone talked and Charleston’s whites called out their militia. Vesey and thirty-four others met their ends not in the heat of battle, except in the way that all black Americans endured it day to day. Nor did they sail off to Haiti as they might have hoped. Instead they expired hanging from Charleston’s gallows. Charleston’s once panicked, but now somewhat reassured, white citizens trampled another enslaved person in their enthusiasm. By seeing the failed revolutionaries, who probably included a fair number of people who knew nothing about any plots, hang from the neck until dead they could begin to satisfy themselves that the just order of the universe still endured.
Vesey helped found the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In white churches, masters could force the enslaved to hear parables about how they must faithfully serve and submit and steer them clear of anything that might give them ideas about freedom. A white church entailed white control. A black church did not. There enslaved and free black Americans alike could worship as they pleased, educate themselves, organize their communities, and carve out at least small spaces for self-determination in lives so often circumscribed by the maledictions of white supremacy. To have a black church, to go there and worship, served as an act of resistance. The whites of Charleston knew that all too well. They closed its doors in 1818, 1819, and 1820. With Vesey on their minds, they burned the building down.
The parishioners did not disperse. They rebuilt and continued until South Carolina outlawed black churches entirely in 1834. That drove them underground until after the Civil War. Vesey’s son designed the new church building. It served as a place for organization, activism, and self-improvement through Reconstruction and the dark years of Jim Crow. That earned many churches attacks and burning at the hands of white terrorists. They knew where black Americans most fully expressed their freedom and sought to better their lives and acted accordingly. Some white Americans still do.
Before the night ended, I read the first denials. The assassin, a white man, did not “really” look white. The racial experts, so far as I can tell, determined this by the proven method of silently assuming white skin made one righteous. The assassin did what they must, in public at least, call unrighteous. They must also declare it an isolated incident. They must cast the assassin as a lone wolf, presumably with mental health problems. Thus quarantined and then pathologized, they can shrug off nine lives. It has nothing to do with them or with our politics. Racism, they tell us, mysteriously died somewhere in the 1960s. We drew the curtain on that.
I don’t know if the assassin struggled with mental illness or not. Most mentally ill people don’t indulge in violence any more than anybody else. More likely they will receive it than deal it out. Nor, if it transpires that the assassin does have a history of mental illness, does it mean that he chose his deeds because of that and to the exclusion of all other concerns. I do know that if he simply cracked and went on a rampage, then he picked a staggeringly unlikely target. He could have shot up a Walmart or a gas station. He could have beat a dog. Instead he picked the AME church and situated himself in one of white America’s most ancient and hallowed traditions: destroying the lives of black Americans. If he had that motive, and I don’t know how one denies it, then he chose his targets and his methods as sensibly as anybody else.
But we don’t have to speculate about this. The assassin proudly posed bearing not just the conventional flag of American white supremacy, the Confederate Battle Flag, but also the kind of emblem for which one has to go looking. He wore the flag of Apartheid South Africa. I’ve seen enough displays to know that just about anywhere with Civil War history and a gift shop sells Confederate flags. Given this all happened in Charleston, I’m sure the assassin did not have to look long to find his. But a South African flag more than twenty years out of use? That took some hunting; he had to go out of his way. To it he added the flag of white Rhodesia, which had a regime similar to South Africa’s. That takes us far into the weeds of white supremacy.
According to witnesses, the assassin declared his purpose while inside the church:
You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go
Words like those blessed every lynching. Between his choice of targets, his choice of symbols, and his own declaration at the event no reasonable, honest person can deny that the assassin acted inspired by and for the furtherance of white supremacy. The same people asking us to pretend otherwise now had no difficulty indicting a billion Muslims not that long ago. They flinch not an instant from indicting millions of black Americans whenever the police shoot one. They ask us again and again to take long, hard looks at the communities that produce such people. Something has gone wrong, culturally, that explains all of this. These pleas would elicit only laughter at their absurdity if not for the hatred behind them.
Someone took the assassin’s pictures. Someone else sold him the flags. Still other people named the street the church stands on after John C. Calhoun, knowing full well his most famous work:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good.
Calhoun didn’t get the street named after him despite that; he earned his street because of it. Still others named the streets of South Carolina, dozens of Confederate roads to a mere handful of black Americans.
And, of course, South Carolina put the Confederate flag up over its capital to protest integration. The compromise that moved it elsewhere on the grounds also ensured it would prove almost impossible to move again by requiring a 2/3 majority vote of both houses of the legislature for any changes. The South Carolina of 1820 only required a majority of both houses to approve the manumission of a slave.
This attack does not present us with a mystery. The assassin told us with words and action precisely what he intended to do. The people who tell us otherwise could not have chosen a more obvious lie. He acted alone and isolated only in the narrowest, most literal sense that he did not gather together a conspiracy to help him. He had accomplices, morally at least, all around him. The people who named the streets, who raised the flag, who smiled off camera and took his picture, all played their part. They told the assassin that people who prosecuted the case for white supremacy, to the very point of war, deserved recognition and celebration. We don’t name streets after people we consider villains. We don’t fly flags we view as odious.
The assassin has other accomplices who now pretend that the shooting had nothing to do with the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. They might deplore his methods, but by obscuring his ideology they enable it. Whether they cloak their cries of white power in the language of anti-anti-racism, as if one prefix did not negate the other, or say nothing because they dare not alienate what they correctly understand as a key voting constituency, they attend the shooting with more than indifference and less than the abhorrence it deserves. They know full well that if the assassin had different skin color or a different presumed religion, they would have no such scruples. How does one explain any of that, unless the excusers and obscurers are themselves white supremacists? If that doesn’t amount to racism, then nothing does.
This denial affords the sophisticated white supremacist many advantages. By concealing race, even narrowly, his or her ideals can appeal to people who have unacknowledged prejudices. A South Carolinian, not all that long ago, articulated just that strategy:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
It worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. They oversaw the great political realignment of living memory, transforming the white South from a Democratic stronghold into one just as committed to what was once the Party of Lincoln. I don’t mean to say here that every white conservative, or even every white Republican considers a sheet with eye holes cut out the most fashionable species of haberdashery. Nor do I mean to excuse white liberals all in favor of integration until it comes to their suburbs or demands their children sit next to black children. Likewise I indict our white suburbs and white neighborhoods of the North and West as much as anywhere in the old slave states.
This sickness comes not just from one group of political partisans, but from the air we breathe. American law defines domestic terrorism this way:
(5)the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—
(A)involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B)appear to be intended—
(i)to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii)to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii)to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C)occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Yet the director of Barack Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t find it in himself to call the attack terrorism. So far as I know, he does not dispute the location. Does he not count black Americans as citizens? As civilians? Does shooting them dead not constitute a danger to human life or a violation of the law? Must we believe, after hearing what the assassin said, that he did not intend to intimidate or coerce others? At least his boss disagrees. Digging further back, Bill Clinton had Confederate flag campaign materials when he ran for president in 1992. We do not depart from the norm or default state of affairs to indulge in white supremacy. We uphold it as the default condition.
White America has this problem. White America made it in making white America and could unmake it the same way. We could react the same way to white terrorists like Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh as we do to bearded men with unfamiliar names or, one hopes, react to both in a way far less destructive. Their domestic terrorism has claimed far more of the latter than any people with foreign-sounding names could have dreamed. We grant ourselves the luxuries of our denial, paid for in the lives of others. White people get to claim perfect innocence. We let ourselves not know the long history of our own misdeeds. We let ourselves ignore how we made the ghetto. We pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and pretend that we didn’t reinstate much of it and, indeed, continue some of it today through mass incarceration. We take our numerous privileges for granted and deem anybody who questions them a troublemaker. We have done this since the seventeenth century. But we could stop it. It wouldn’t come easy. It would make us uncomfortable.
We have it in us to do better if we want to. We have organized the entire system to ensure we may do as we please. Having done so, we must take the outcomes we observe as those we actually accept, whatever we may preach when convenient. We could do better tomorrow. We could have done better last Wednesday night. If we really wanted to make the assassination into an isolated incident, tragic but not speaking to broader realities, we could have started then. We didn’t. This is the world that white America made and that most white Americans at least tolerate, if not embrace. Probably more of us go that extra mile, at least if we put the assassin in the right uniform or give him slightly more sophisticated slogans, than we would care to admit.
Will this finally be the turning point? I know no more of the future than anybody else, but our sorry performance to date points at best to more of the same. That means that the nine lives claimed last week constitute less the last and deadliest individual attack on black Americans since Reconstruction, but simply the latest and deadliest for now. The arc of history only bends invariably toward justice in our aspirations. Reversion to horrifying past norms happens just as often as permanently foreclosing them. Making those into reality requires action that I feel fairly confident white America will not so much as contemplate. We don’t want it to be over. We have a tradition to maintain for as long as the right people pay the price for us.
Don’t take my word or John Stewart’s word for it. Consider what the most prominent of the Sunday morning talk shows opted to air on its first episode after the shooting.
HappyJuneteenth. I plan to write something on the depressingly traditional way one white American chose to celebrate it this year for Monday.
Having spend a fair bit of time on the free state militias that grew up in Kansas during 1855, it only seems fair to explore their opposite number. They operated as Blue Lodges, Sons of the South, the Social Band, the Friend’s Society, and probably under other names. The Howard Report includes testimony from eleven men on secret societies, but most of them spoke about the free state side rather than their antagonists. Only Jordan Davidson, John C. Prince, William P. Richardson, and John Stringfellow had anything to say about border ruffian organization.
Of those four, Richardson proved the least candid. His testimony consumes only a single page. John Sherman, brother of a then unremarkable officer named William, asked if Richardson belonged to any secret society aimed at “the extension of slavery into any territory of the United States”. Richardson answered in a remarkable subversion of the verbosity of the age:
I decline answering that question.
Even if Richardson would not admit to membership, would he testify that such a society existed?
I decline answering that question.
Sherman pressed on, ignoring the denials. Did such a group have anything to do with elections in Kansas? Did they, perhaps, send cash or recruit voters to go over for the day?
I decline answering that question.
Then Sherman finally dragged a new sentence out of Richardson.
Question. Would your answer to these questions, by the rules or obligations of such a society, impose upon you any penalty or danger of violence, or would it tend to criminate you?
Answer. It would subject me to no pains or penalties. I think it would be improper in me to answer these questions, but not that there is anything dishonorable about it, I do not think the committee have any right to ask me any such questions, and, therefore, I respectfully decline answering them.
Congressman Sherman heard Richardson’s denials before the affair with H. Miles Moore and so can’t have had that in mind. Nevertheless, he had reason to suspect that Richardson feared punishment if he told all. He knew from John C. Prince’s testimony on May 9, 1856, six days prior to Richardson’s, that the former
should not like to tell all I know about this society, because I think it would result to me injury; and that is one reason, though not the only one, why I dislike to answer in relation to the matter. One other reason is, that the members of the society take oaths to keep secrets those matters.
With Richardson stonewalling, Sherman pressed on. Did Richardson, who declined to otherwise comment on secret societies, know of any rule they put out requiring men like him to refuse cooperation with the Howard Committee and other outsiders? His tongue loosened by the last inquiry, Richardson finally let a few more words free:
I decline answering that question, upon the ground that the committee have no right to ask me such questions.
Richardson came back the next day and added that he had not properly understand Sherman’s question, but in the day since he had come to do so. Thus he parted with still more of his dear words:
My previous consideration of the free state militia in the fall of 1855 has focused on lesser known figures. However, Andrew Francis named a rather more famous man who signed up for the Kansas Regulators about the same time that he did. Francis’ testimony indicted another Andrew, Kansas’ first governor. Andrew Reeder saw fit to testify at length to the Howard Committee. He devoted most of his time to defending his conduct as governor, as one would expect, but after the recitations of threats against him for delaying elections, for setting aside elections, and the ever-fruitful subject of his land speculations, Reeder delved into his involvement with secret societies:
In the month of September, 1855, I was invited to become a member; assented, and proceeded to the place of meeting; found about 25 to 30 men assembled; was assured by the presiding officer that the objects were such as would not conflict with any of the obligations of an honorable man and a good citizen, and an assurance that if I so found them, i would not reveal the existence of the society, in case I desired to take the oath when I should hear it.
Reeder then heard the oath, declared it “unexceptionable,” and sore it. He affirmed, however, that he had never seen a written constitution for the Regulators. They must have learned from Patrick Laughlin’s exposure of the Legion not to put such things in writing. Reeder also told the committee that he only attended the meeting where he joined. By the time he testified, he had either forgotten or “forgotten” all the passwords save for the one that Andrew Francis testified to. All the same, he remembered enough of the oath to give an account quite similar to Martin Conway’s:
The principal points of the oath of initiation were-to labor by all honorable means to make Kansas a free State; mutually to protect and defend each other against violence; always to keep a firelock and ammunition in the house; to wear a weapon of defence, in the shape of a knife or revolver; to rush to the rescue of a brother who should be assailed by violence, whenever there was a greater probability of saving his life than of losing my own.
Martin F. Conway
Reeder read the oath Francis recited and declared, like Conway, that he recalled no promise to transact business as exclusively as possible with free State men, to obey orders to the point of death, to wear badges marking himself as a member, to take up arms against the government, and so forth. The governor admitted that badges existed, but added that as he received permission to wear one or not as he liked, he did not view their use as inherent or obligatory in membership.
For the rest, Reeder said
I have not the slightest recollection, and do not at all believe they constitute a part of the oath. I am very confident that I took no such pledges; and had they been proffered, I should have refused at once; and I could not have taken such an obligation, or had it offered to me, without recollecting it.
it is possible that there may have been a pledge to oppose, disavow, or repudiate them as not binding, and not to avail myself of them, and such a promise I may have made and forgotten.
Even if he had, Reeder insisted, he did not intend or swear to pursue his opposition through force of arms. He would never have sworn that, and would have remembered if he did, because he deemed many of the legislature’s works “of so indifferent a character, and not peculiarly obnoxious in themselves” that he wouldn’t consider them worth fighting over. Reeder must here mean something like the ferry bill he vetoed and other workaday legislation. He certainly didn’t have in mind the more radical proslavery acts. If he had, then I doubt he would have long remained in the free soil party, even if he came initially out of spite against the legislature for his ouster.
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