It occurred to me the other day that the way many conservatives and Republicans are reacting to President Obama the same way Southern Whites reacted to reconstruction era policies and politicians. This is not a direct correlation but more a reemergence of societal and political rage that often goes unexpressed in the public dialogue. Let me explain, and it does warrant at least a cursory explanation of the Reconstruction Period. After the Civil War the Federal Government allowed for the political and economic reconstruction of the defeated south. This was meant to be achieved through Federal Government programs and spending and through Military enforcement of these policies. We must remember that what the United States government was faced with was a hostile region that had just been beaten into submission and wrecked socially and economically and structurally. I for one believe that the US government had every right to treat the southern states as conquered territories and to impose top down reformations of inherently flawed systems. This was a feudal economy based around paternalistic government, chattel slavery and a misogynistic and anti-worker social structure. The North was of course guilty of profiting from this backwards region and its inhumane systems, but they had at least allowed for a constructive conversation on how to eliminate ties with this abomination and eventually went to war to eradicate it from the national and political landscape. The South would have gone on for as long as possible keeping slaves and abusing the rights of blacks, workers and women. As long as the system was profitable and kept rich white planters and their business partners in power it would have continued.
The US government and Military overthrew the governments of the rebellious regions, abolished their unconstitutional state constitutions, and called for immediate reform and free elections. Combined with (often faltering and under-funded) attempted education of newly freed slaves and poor blacks this system of reconstruction was meant to drag the south kicking and screaming into the modern era. This approach worked for a while: state constitutions were purged of institutional protections for chattel slavery and discrimination against black citizens, black politicians were elected to statewide and federal office for the first time, black men were given the full franchise, Civil Rights Bills were passed at the federal level, and Amendments to the Federal Constitution were passed to enshrine and ensure these laws forever. We cannot overstate the revolutionary nature of these changes and the ideas that went behind them. This proved to be the final vindication of black and white abolitionists and their philosophies. The “radical” Liberal Republicans, so called by southerners and entrenched racists who had an interest in the status quo, did more than any other congress to achieve true equality for all citizens. The fact that these efforts survived for the 20 years they did in the South is amazing on its face and should be celebrated as more of a victory than it currently is in our history tomes and textbooks.
“There was one thing that the white South feared more than negro dishonesty, ignorance, and incompetency, and that was negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.” W.E.B. Du Bois said this over a hundred years ago and it is as true now as it was then. Replace “negro” with “anything liberal and non-white” and you have an exact explanation of the political fears of the White Christian Male power structure that still exists throughout the south to this day. In direct contradiction of what many southern authored, edited, and published history textbooks [See “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen for more on this scholarly travesty perpetrated against American students] real scholars and firsthand accounts of history show that the Reconstruction era black and liberal legislators/legislatures were elected democratically, overwhelmingly, and were entrusted by a more diverse voting population to rebuild the southern states as a more egalitarian society. According to Mississippi legislature and former slave John Roy Lynch
The [Radical Republican Reconstruction] campaign was aggressive from beginning to end… the election resulted in a sweeping Republican victory. That party not only elected the state ticket by a majority of about thirty thousand, but also had a large majority in both branches of the state legislature.1
Men (and they were all men unfortunately; civil rights for women of all races had yet to reach critical mass at this point in the Republic’s history) who had only a few years before been considered sub-human were now entrusted with rebuilding a region devastated by a war it had brought upon itself through intransigence and widespread inhumanity towards its own residents. Lynch goes on to talk about just some of the challenge facing the new legislatures
It was also necessary to reorganize, reconstruct, and in many instances, rebuild some of the penal, charitable, and other public institutions of the state. A new code of laws also had to be adopted to take the place of the old one, and thus wipe out the black laws […] That this great and important work was splendidly, creditably, and economically done, no fair-minded person who is familiar with the facts will question or dispute.2
Though of course this was disputed and still is in many corners of the country where it is impossible on its face for a liberal government to make any positive change. We see this same sort of intellectual intransigence today in Tea Party and Conservative Republicans circles. They condemn the “socialist” evils of a national Federal government that is making an attempt to structure a more equitable system for more Americans. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has pointed out the levels of participation in hate groups and anti-government militias has exploded since the election of the first American President with African heritage3. This hate and irrationality has only increased with the attempt by the Obama administration and its allies to craft meaningful firearms regulation reform in the face of the many recent mass shooting tragedies in communities throughout the nation.
The Drudge Report has trotted out (false) equivalencies to the Hitler and Stalin regimes and their firearms policies. Radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones have literally screamed about coming assaults on liberty and mass death camps being used against gun owners and white conservative Christians throughout the nation. Private citizens are getting in on the irrationality by posting videos about how “the killing” will start of the government “takes away” the guns of citizens (see the spectacle of the video posted by a TN gun rights fanatic)4. With apologies to the Four Tops, this is “The same old song/But with a different meaning/Since” Jim Crow was forced out of the political scene. Just look at what was said about the black legislatures of the Reconstruction era South by contemporaries and their later “academic” apologists
“The southern people literally were put to the torture…[by] rugged conspirators…[who] assumed the pose of philanthropists and patriots.”— Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln
“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule–to all political, social and business connections with the Yankees and the Yankee race.”—Edmund Ruffin, Confederate Sympathizer
Republicanism or democracy has nothing to do with it; it is from the fact that these people believe they have been plundered by him [Reconstruction Era Northern Republican representative of black political rights], and their property has been attempted to be confiscated by him; that he has undertaken his way to make a serfdom of this country. — B. W. Marston, white Louisiana Planter5
We see this sort if insane refusal to see the truth in many of the GOP and Tea Party attacks on President Obama and liberal government officials in general. Gun sales are through the roof, hate groups are expanding, and conservative white males are seeing themselves as an “oppressed minority”. This echoes the (albeit much more extreme) reaction of white southerners to reconstruction policies. The Klan rose, militias formed, and violent and paranoid screeds were written by white southerners who saw the expansion of political rights to an oppressed people as an attack on their inherent supremacy. Equality is servitude to a person or a group used to institutional and cultural hegemony. There is even a rise in people who insist that Federal debt makes “everyone” a slave…and by “everyone” we should read “white people”. Because it is one thing to have blacks and women in servitude…but when white MEN are put upon, well then there is tyranny afoot!
The white south has not really ever gotten over Reconstruction, The Civil War, or the Civil Rights era of the mid-20th century. The election of a black President who dared to continue left of center solutions to problems brought about largely by right of center-mistakes is a bridge too far for many conservative whites who feel like they have “suffered” enough equality and diversity. The big change is that now the southern white male mentality has been scattered across the country like a seed pod smashes open in the midst of a gust of wind. How else do you explain Confederate flags on bumpers in Dekalb, Illinois and hung from the porch in Allentown, Pennsylvania? Now every white man (and the deluded women who support them) can buy into the “lost cause” of the late Confederacy; the south will rise again all over the nation but this time it will come through SEC football, gay-bashing, and eliminating the minimum wage and welfare. One of the popular prophets of the new post-geographical South is Glenn Beck and he sees neo-reconstructionism behind every bush and in every law
“The health care bill is reparations. It’s the beginning of reparations.”6
What can be more terrifying to a conservative white man then the idea that his hard earned money will go to pay for the sins (and they were not that terrible, those sins, anyway) of their forefathers? Everything is reconstruction program today: food-stamps, welfare, unemployment insurance, even Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Never mind that the vast majority of these services go to poor whites; there may be a black person taking advantage of “our” money somewhere! The money “we” gave them! Because everything that black Americans have is the result of white largess apparently. Remember, it was the slave owners who taught black a “work ethic” and “clothed and fed them” during slavery, at least according to the men and women desperately clinging to respectability in the reconstruction era and today on the revisionist history sites and pro-south “cultural” groups and even in the state legislature of a “modern” southern state
“So, also, as society advanced and the human race multiplied in the earth, the idleness of some, the incapacity of others, and the vices of a still greater number, would lead to greater inequalities.”– George W. Freeman, pro-slavery orator7
“…the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.”—Rep. Jon Hubbard, Alabama legislature and author of Letters to the Editor, Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative8
If I didn’t make it clear would anyone be able to guess that which speaker lived in the 19th century and which the 21st? During reconstruction society was treated to dozens, hundreds of political cartoon lampooning black legislators and voters, and degrading black men and women in general. They are shown as chimpanzees, drunkards, and corrupt. The modern day “Tea Party” movement supplies us with surprisingly familiar racially charged and outright racist sentiments mostly consisting of, but not limited to, attacks on our first (half-black) president
Obama’s Plan: White Slavery
Obama Loves Taxes [sic] Bankrupts USA
Congress = Slave Owner Taxpayer = [misspelled racial slur]9
Perhaps not up to the quality of 19th century political cartoon art, but it gets the job done. Confront any Tea Party supporting person on these signs or on the persistent and revoltingly xenophobic racist meme that President Obama was born in the African nation of Kenya and you get a litany of excuses ranging from the usual “this is not representative” to “well I have never seen or heard people say these things”. Given the prevalence of these signs and the Obama as Kenya usurper myth this assertion does not pass the smell test. In fact according to a CBS news Poll 45% of Republicans and 45% of self-identified Tea Party supporters believed as recently as 2011 that President Obama was born in a country other than the US. I can bet you that most of these 45% where NOT black or liberal.10
While not exclusively southern anymore, the reaction against President Obama and his policies is has the unmistakable stench of racial animus and reactionary hatred for liberal/reconstructive policy and governance.
Another trope of reconstruction era southern prejudice has reemerged in the form of vilifying and belittling African American governmental figures in positions of power. The political spectacle involving the potential nomination of UN Ambassador Susan Rice is only the most recent example of this irrationality. With a new report now essentially confirming what was asserted by Rice and her associates at the UN and the State Department and the Obama Administration regarding the assassination of the US Ambassador to Libya, the criticism of this brilliant diplomat and policy analyst are revealed for what they are; attacks motivated by innate bigoted mistrust of black people in positions of authority
“If this select committee clears her of any wrongdoing, besides not being very bright, because it was obvious that this was not a quote ‘flash mob,’ there was no demonstration, Charlie…”—Sen. John McCain 11
Not very bright? This is a strange thing for a Senator to say about a woman who runs the American mission to the United Nations and who was also a Rhodes Scholar. There really is no other valid excuse for this slander, especially when considered upon the other baffling and often racially tinged attacks upon other black Obama administration officials such as Eric Holder, Shirley Sherrod the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, the first Lady Michelle Obama, and Van Jones, special Executive Branch Advisor for Green Job initiatives. Secretary Holder and Mrs. Obama in particular have been ravaged in conservative circles; the former being decried as a secret “black nationalist” and corrupt scam artist and the latter with horrid racist stereotypes of black women that have not been aired so blithely in public media and discussion since the reconstruction era. In no other administration have black appointees and officials been subject to such constant vitriolic and often un-warranted criticism.
Compare to the invective heaped upon black legislators and officials in the Reconstruction era South, with irate southern whites accusing blacks of stealing tax money, abusing their authority and even (if the political cartoons are to be believes) drinking while on the job. Of course these myths are just that; the period was no more or less corrupt than any other, and perhaps it was less so considering for the first and only time the full force of the US Government and Military stood behind local democratic processes12. The Obama administration and its policies also give conservative whites an opportunity to criticize the idea of representative democracy itself, with commentators ranging from pundits to former rock stars calling for poll taxes, poll tests, and the invalidity of elections that benefit people other than white conservative males. The sentiments expressed are reminiscent of southern apologists throughout American history
“[Southern Reconstruction] was government by the most ignorant and vicious part of the population for the benefit, the vulgar, materialistic, brutal benefit of the governing set.”— John W. Burgess, Columbia University Professor13
A black President and a liberal leaning government gives white conservatives the excuse to complain about views on things like government spending, government debt, and restriction to gun rights that have been imposed and proposed by Republican Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan to the second President Bush. The REAL problem this time around is not debt or government spending (these problems existed to even a greater extent under Republican heroes like Reagan) but the fact that the current President dealing with these problems is a darker shade than most white conservatives are comfortable with. Why else would they complain NOW about problems that have been around for decades if not generations? Because the white south sees a black face implementing reform and new ideas, and a black face dealing with the issues that threaten society and government, it is now means that “they” are after them again, “they” will take away what “they” deserve. “They” will take away the power and authority their white skin has given them for far too long. This may not be a period of full reconstruction (we can only hope such an era returns) but it is a time when non-white, non-conservatives voices finally have a say in how we solve the problems facing this nation. That is just a bit too much to bear for the cultural and intellectual heirs of those who once fought a losing battle over a horrid atrocity.
Citations (forgive the numbers on the bottom, I had a problem with my word processor. Refer to the numbers closest to the citation)
- Excerpt from John Hope Franklin, ed. Reminiscenses of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/activism/ps_lynch.html
- from Testimony of B.W. Marston Re: The Coushatta Affair. House Reports, 44th Congress, 1st Session, No. 816, 645-727. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/kkk/ps_marston.html
- [The Glenn Beck Program, 7/22/09] retrieved from http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/08/glennys_greates_racist_hits.html
- 7. The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders: Two Discourses Delivered on Sunday, November 27, 1836, in Christ Church, Raleigh, North-Carolina, By George W. Freeman, retrieved from http://www1.assumption.edu/users/lknoles/douglassproslaveryargs.html
- 8. Letters to the Editor, Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative, Pages 183-89, quote retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/article/arkansas-rep-claims-slavery-was-good-for-black-people
- 9. http://www.motherjones.com/slideshows/2010/09/tea-partys-racist-signs/niggar and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/16/10-most-offensive-tea-par_n_187554.html
- 10. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20056061-503544.html
- 11. http://www.mediaite.com/tv/get-it-straight-john-mccain-did-say-susan-rice-was-not-very-bright/
- 12. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/plantation/sf_myths.html#e
- 13. John W. Burgess, Reconstruction and the Constitution, 1866-1876 (Harvard University, 1905), 264-5, retrieved from http://www.shmoop.com/reconstruction/citations.html#37