The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.

The Blue Lodges, Part Five

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Jordan Davidson told the Howard Committee, with a bit of pride, that the members of the proslavery Blue Lodges had done right and, they believed, lawfully in coming over and voting in Kansas’ elections. He further had a rather different view of the organizations than did either people in Kansas or other members. Davidson insisted that the men of the lodges swore an oath against the use of violence. This might come down to his lack of scrupulous attendance. If he missed as many meetings as he suggested, then Davidson saw very little of his fellow proslavery men in action. Alternatively, the lodge members could have sworn that oath and broken it. They might have claimed the same kind of abstract self-defense that justified defiance of law in Benjamin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil:

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

While we can’t say that Stringfellow spoke for Davidson’s Pleasant Hill lodge officially, as he had for the Platte County Self-Defense Association, both the similarity of the two groups in politics and the general tenor of the proslavery movement argue that they had similar ideas. With that in mind, Davidson and others could swear themselves to obedience to the law and restraint from violence but then defy the law and resort to violence. They could, in words they would not have much appreciated, have cited a Higher Law.

That higher law might have come into play within the group as well. J.C. Prince testified that he feared for his safety if he told the Howard Committee all he knew about the Blue Lodges. Davidson testified to an oath against telling the group’s secrets:

The penalty for violating the rules and secrets of the order was all the honor a man had. A man, by violating the secrets and rules of the order, was liable to stand in society beneath the dignity of a gentleman, but to no personal injury, except as they might take a notion to inflict it. There was nothing said in the oath or forms of the society about inflicting personal harm upon delinquent members.

One can read that either as further to the effect that the lodges demanded no violence of their members or that they demanded no violence officially. Davidson says only that the oath and forms did not require violent retaliation, not that it never happened or that the group’s bylaws forbade them. He carefully outsourced any violence that might come to the unspecified, general society rather than to the particular society in question. This distinction might have cleared his conscience or proved useful in a court of law, but could end in broken bodies and stolen lives all the same.

The Blue Lodges, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3

W.P. Richardson would only tell the Howard Committee that he would not tell them about the Blue Lodges that plotted to control the future of Kansas. J.C. Prince told some, but admitted he would not tell all he knew because he had sworn otherwise and feared retaliation. John Stringfellow, clearly proud of the lodges’ work, told the committee all manner of things that everybody who lived in Kansas or Missouri could have seen for themselves. He went on, however, to deny much logistical coordination between the lodges. The committee’s remaining witness on the issue continued in much the same vein.

Jordan Davidson testified that

There is a secret society in the State of Missouri, for the purpose of introducing slavery into Kansas Territory. The proper name of the society, as recognized by its own members, is “Social Band,” “Friend’s Society,” and by some the “Blue Lodge” and “The Sons of the South.”

Davidson had never seen any written bylaws of the group to say that it had a single official name. Nor, he admitted, did he often attend meetings. He had too much work to do in the day and wanted rest too much at night to put on regular appearances. But he felt confident to speak to the group’s general nature, goals, and activities. Specifically:

The order compelled no man to come into this Territory and vote.

But the order did go over and vote. When asked directly of the Blue Lodge served as a way to organize men for election stealing, Davidson agreed almost without qualifier:

The greatest weight it had was in this way, for protection when we did get here; that when we got into a scrape we should not fall foul of each other. The friends of the society were friends to slavery in the south, and to extend it here if we could do it by lawful means.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Lawful means concern Davidson repeatedly in his testimony. He declares the lodges “governed by law,” indulging in “no compulsion beyond the law” and saw “nothing in it contrary to the law”. Davidson

never heard any of the leaders of the invasion of the 30th of March say it was illegal to come over here and vote. I heard an investigation of that matter in the lodge. One of the members asked how they could come here and vote lawfully, if they were objected to as not citizens of the Territory. The answer was to squeeze it in somehow, and if we could not get to vote, there was no violence to be used.

All of that sounds like protesting a bit too much. Davidson declares that he himself viewed voting in Kansas as right by the law, but even if we take that at face value then others in his lodge had their doubts. Otherwise, why would they require a discussion? Why admit that if challenged, they should find some way to “squeeze” the votes regardless? Some of that can come down to an assertion that Kansan voting scruples simply must yield to Missourian. Then a Missourian need not accept the legitimacy of examining his credentials. He might even feel free to simply lie.

Davidson further testified

Some of the wisest of our party, I suppose, did not fully believe that voting here was lawful, but they contended that it was right as there were a good many others coming here to vote; I considered it right myself, and came here of my own accord.

What we consider right often differs from what we find lawful. In such cases, we generally think it right to ignore the law. The border ruffians did the same. Davidson agreed with them and came of his own free will. But his invocation of right here, in light of his repeated insistence on the lawfulness of election stealing, suggests that he meant more than that he came to Kansas and did what he thought right. One must remember that Davidson testified under oath before a committee of the House of Representatives. The “here” to which he came meant Kansas, but not just on the occasion of the election. He came back to testify, apparently without a summons, and with a clear conscience. His testimony thus has an air of defiance to it: He came and told what he knew, as he liked, with pride. By implication, Davidson dared them to do something about it.