Probably, like almost everybody, I have been surprised by the surge of Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential race. At first, I thought, given the proximity to Vermont, he might do well in New Hampshire. Then I thought he might do well in Iowa. He has been drawing large crowds wherever he goes. That includes surprising places like Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston.
It does not take a political genius to realize that, at this time, his message is resonating in a powerful way. Sanders’ arguments about the dangers of income inequality are the same arguments he has made for the last 40 years.
I had read that Sanders was inspired by the example of Eugene V. Debs. There is a plaque of Debs in Senator Sanders’ office. Back in 1979, Sanders produced an audio documentary about Debs. In the liner notes for the documentary, Sanders wrote the following:
“It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs. If you are the average American who watches television 40 hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm deodorants, every hack politician in your state, and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century. Why? Why haven’t they told you about Gene Debs and the ideas he fought for. The answer is simple: more than a half century after his death, the handful of people who own and control the country, including the mass media, and the educational system still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.”
So who was this guy Eugene Debs and why does he matter? Is he as important as the Kardashians?
I think it is fair to say Debs was one of the most revered figures in the history of the American Left. He was the most popular and effective socialist figure ever to appear in America. Throughout his life, Debs advocated for fair wages, worker’s rights, social justice, and equality. For 30 years, from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Debs was the spokesperson for a democratic socialist vision for America.
Really, those were the glory days for American socialism. It always has been a minority movement but, for a time, it had a significant following.
Debs did not come from Berkeley or Cambridge. He was born in Terra Haute, Indiana in 1855 and he grew up there. I know about Debs’ Indiana roots from reading Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut often wrote that he took pride in being from the same state as Debs. Vonnegut even named the protagonist in his novel Hocus Pocus after Debs.
Debs went off to work on the railroad at age 15. He started as a yard laborer, moved on to painter, and finally became a locomotive fireman. He helped to organize the first lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in Terra Haute. He then quickly rose in the National Brotherhood. In his job, Debs traveled around the country to organize and assist in the formation of new lodges.
Through his work and travels, Debs became familiar with almost every sector of the American working class. Always interested in politics, Debs was repeatedly elected Town Clerk in Terra Haute. He also got elected as a state representative in the Indiana state legislature in 1884 but he did not seek reelection there. His heart was more in organizing.
In 1893, Debs went on to organize the American Railway Union (ARU), an industry-wide union dedicated to the rights of every worker in the railway industry. Although he had previously built the Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, he found craft unionism too narrow. Debs believed solidarity could not be achieved under the old craft set-up.
After a significant victory in a battle over a wage cut by the Great Northern Railroad, Debs and the ARU faced off against George Pullman and his railroad company in the massive Pullman strike. The story is novel-worthy. A federal judge who had been appointed through the influence of George Pullman issued injunctions that forbid virtually all union activity. Also, the court had 700 strikers arrested including Debs and other ARU leaders.
Debs did six months in prison. With the ARU smashed, Debs had time in prison to reflect. He had started organizing with an idealistic, humanitarian perspective. He now saw the need for a class viewpoint. He came to see that all workers shared an identical interest. The Pullman strike reinforced Debs’ growing class consciousness.
He came to the conclusion that a workers’ political party needed to be organized to defend workers’ interests politically. At the same time, he favored a class-wide union to defend workers’ interests economically. In 1897, Debs went on to found the Social Democratic Party which became the American Socialist Party.
Debs made his first run for the Presidency in 1900. He subsequently ran for president four more times. During the next 18 years, he travelled the country incessantly. He went by train and spoke everywhere in the country, often giving 6 to 10 speeches a day. He threw himself heart and soul into the effort. Debs brought hundreds of thousands of people into the Socialist Party. Debs increased his vote totals as he ran. By 1912, he got 900,000 votes which was 6% of the total votes cast.
When the United States chose to enter World War I, Debs took an anti-war position and spoke out against the war. He believed the decision to enter the war was motivated by capitalism. In 1918, under the Espionage Act of 1917, Debs was arrested. The Espionage Act made it a crime to give speeches that interfered with the war effort. The court sentenced Debs to 10 years in federal prison.
Always quotable, in his speech to the court, Debs said:
“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it and while there is a criminal element, I am of it and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
He went on to describe his general outlook this way:
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. ”
In his last run for President in 1920, Debs received 900,000 votes. At the time, Debs was Prisoner 9653. He ran the race from jail. He remained incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. President Harding commuted Debs’s sentence in 1921.
When people consider greatest Americans, the usual candidates named are former Presidents. Lincoln does come to mind. However, I would place Debs in my own top five. His oratorical skills were legendary. He fought selflessly for working people his whole life. Debs was total salt of the earth. He identified with the down and out – not leaders or bureaucrats. He always remained down-to-earth, informal, with the democratic spirit of a Midwesterner.
For Debs, socialism was the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government of whatever variety.
Bernie Sanders could not have picked a more noble person to serve as inspiration. I will leave the last word to Debs:
“If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make the claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
It was encouraging to see the Confederate flag come down in Charleston, South Carolina. It does represent a victory of sorts for anti-racists. That flag is and has long been a hateful symbol. You have to overlook so much to celebrate that flag. Still, the victory should not be overstated. All over the South, there are memorials to the Confederacy – not to the victims of slavery.
The mythology of happy Plantation-land is widespread. There has been something of a delusional Southern world view. The Civil War has been characterized as the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, and the War for State’s Rights.
To this day, racists everywhere in America still cry for state’s rights. It has been obvious for a long time that state’s rights is the ideological cover for racism. People can say what they will about the federal government but it is the federal government which has historically acted as the protector of civil rights for all.
The Confederate heritage advocates have tried to bury the matter of slavery as if it is an irrelevant detail. The history of lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan have been brushed off as no big deal. That is remarkable considering that in 1860, one in three people who lived in the South were owned as property.
Whatever the Southern sins and they were vast and unspeakable, I want to suggest that historically the North was not that much better. There is no basis to contrast the bad racist South with the good anti-racist North both before and after the Civil War.
The form that racism took in the North was simply different. Instead of slavery, the North featured deep segregation laced with the same white supremacist mentality. When the abolitionists started out in the North, they were a hated minority. According to Howard Zinn, as late as 1810, one quarter of the Black population of the North remained slaves.
While I would never belittle the tenacity and courage of the abolitionists in the North, it was not until the mid-1830’s that the abolitionist movement dramatically grew. Northerners regularly criticized the abolitionists for being too extreme.
In his book, Inhuman Bondage, the historian David Brion Davis writes:
“The Northern and especially New England reformers learned to their dismay that American society was not only deeply permeated with racism but that the basic institutional structures from the judicial system to the international economy were connected with slavery: Most Americans wore or consumed slave-grown produce; many Northerners’ jobs were tied in some way to Southern markets or to servicing the export of Southern products. To make matters worse, white workers, some of whom had seen black workers used as strike breakers, expressed deep fears that even a partial emancipation would lead to the northward migration of freed blacks, who would then literally work for starvation wages.”
Davis makes the point that before he became president, Abraham Lincoln believed there was a “Slave Power” conspiracy that united pro-slavery presidents, the Supreme Court, and Southern Senators and Congressmen. Lincoln felt the pro-slavers were intent on nationalizing the institution of slavery as the United States expanded.
In the aftermath of the Civil War and not counting the relatively brief interlude of Reconstruction, American apartheid was the general rule in the whole country. That lasted for a very long time – until the Civil Rights Movement. Whether in employment, housing, education, voting rights or health care, Black people were constantly discriminated against and relegated to second class citizenship. They were generally kept in a world apart with circumscribed opportunities.
Doubters need only look at the Kerner Commission report produced after the riots in urban areas in 1967. The report was mandated by President Johnson. The report famously stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies – one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The Kerner Commission report remains a good read.
While it is impossible not to acknowledge the progress that has been made on race matters, I remain very unimpressed with the place we have reached. We are so far from any kind of racial or economic equality. America is still deeply enmeshed in institutional racism. If anything we have re-segregated while talking a phony line about colorblindness. The election of an African American president hasn’t changed that much for the masses of people although it probably has made America feel better about itself.
I think we have lacked the requisite will to tackle racism. One sick thing is how efforts to remedy racism like affirmative action are seen as racist. One can only ask: what has happened to our historical understanding?
In assessing America’s racial history, I want to mention three watershed moments which set us on our present course.
First, I would begin with the infamous three-fifths clause of the federal Constitution. The clause provided that representation in Congress was to be based on “the whole number of free Persons and three fifths of all other Persons”. The other persons were the slaves. The point of the provision was not that slaves were considered three fifths of a person. The provision allowed Southern states to get more representation in Congress because the three fifths clause gave the slave states more seats even though the slaves could not vote.
For 70 years, the three fifths clause enabled the South to block federal legislation hostile to slavery. It allowed there to be more pro-slavery representation in Congress so that slave states like Missouri and Texas became part of the United States. It also helped the South gain an advantage in presidential races through the Electoral College. The Electoral College allocated presidential electors based on the number of members of Congress each state had.
There is a terrible irony embedded in the three fifths clause. Slaves were counted to give the South more political power but they remained slaves and could not vote. That is why the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison described the Constitution as “a covenant with death, an agreement in Hell”.
When Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, it abolished slavery and nullified the three-fifths clause. However, disenfranchising black citizens has remained a continuing theme. Witness the continuing struggles around voting rights. It was no accident that immediately following Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County v Holder, Southern states like North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi almost immediately began efforts to restrict the franchise.
The second watershed moment was 1876. A disputed presidential election between the Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden led to the compromise of 1877. In that compromise deal, the Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to become president in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South.
The removal of the federal troops from the South was a betrayal of the former slaves. It amounted to losing their protection. In effect, the North acquiesced in what the writer Douglas Blackmon called reimposition of slavery by another name. Black people were left to the mercy of deeply racist state and local governments. Jim Crow followed.
Part of the story was the retreat of Northern liberals from the goal of racial equality. The country moved on from the old anti-slavery issue sort of like how we have moved on now. On June 1, 1876, the New York Times wrote, “Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison are not exactly extinct forces in American politics but they represent ideas in regard to the South which the great majority of the Republican Party have outgrown”.
Many abolitionists did oppose the retreat from Reconstruction but they lacked the political power to influence events. From 1875 to 1957, Congress did not pass a single civil rights bill.
The third watershed moment I would cite is the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the case that upheld separate but equal. In that case, Louisiana had passed a state law segregating railroad cars and requiring people of color to sit in the “colored” car. Homer Plessy, of light-skinned Creole ancestry, boarded the train in New Orleans and sat in the white section. He intended to be arrested and wanted to act as a test case. When the conductor ordered Plessy to move out of the coach, he refused. The police arrested him and he was ejected from the coach.
An almost unanimous Supreme Court ultimately upheld the segregation with only Justice Harlan dissenting. The Court wrote that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were “equal”. Of course, they were never equal. Until Brown v Board of Education, a long generation later, Plessy was the law of the land. It is hard to overstate just how consequential the decision was. Segregation was legitimated by America’s highest legal authority. With its reaffirmation of segregation, Plessy gave the green light to expansion of racist practices in public accommodations and in all areas of life.
While many people may have heard of Plessy and Dred Scott, it is shocking just how dismal the role of the U.S. Supreme Court was on race issues in the 19th Century. There are quite a few decisions which can most charitably be described as an embarrassment. For those historically inclined, I would mention United States v Cruikshank, the 1883 Civil Rights Cases and United States v. Harris. These are not the Supreme Court’s finest moments.
One story I did want to mention involves New Hampshire’s own former President, Franklin Pierce. Pierce opposed the abolitionists and saw them as the main threat to the unity of the country. In 1853, Pierce nominated John Archibald Campbell to the U.S. Supreme Court. Campbell,an Alabama lawyer, was quickly confirmed and he served 8 years on the Court. Campbell resigned from the Court three weeks after the first shots in the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. He resigned to become assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy. Of note, when he was on the Court, Campbell voted against Dred Scott.
In the more recent era, with the exception of the Warren Court, the Court has not exactly clothed itself in glory on race cases. As was reflected in Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County v Holder, there is an out-of-touch quality there and a continuing lack of historical understanding of racism.
James Baldwin once wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Those words still ring true.
The pic is my dog Shady (on the left) with two of his brothers, Bodie (in the middle), and Bailee (on the right).
I was very lucky to get to Montreal this year for the first few days of the Jazz Festival. It is a wonderful event with people coming from all over the world to Montreal.
For those who do not know about it, the festival goes on for two weeks. It is usually the last week of June and the first week of July. There are a number of stages set up in the area of the festival and music runs from late afternoon until midnight. Most of the shows are free although there are some paying shows too.
I wanted to highlight a few groups who played, including a couple I did not know about before:
Freshlyground – I must confess I did not know anything about Freshlyground, a group from Cape Town, South Africa, before they played outdoors on the biggest stage at the festival. The group is sensational. I think playing before a large crowd outdoors may be the best way to see them. The energy of their live performance, the danceability of the music, the good vibes generated were memorable. It was one of the best performances I have ever seen at the Montreal Jazz Festival and I started going about 15 years ago. For me, Freshlyground was the highlight of the whole festival.
They did a 9pm show and an 11pm followup last Sunday night. After hearing the first performance, I hung around to hear the second show. Some of the numbers I liked included Take Me To The Dance, Buttercup, and Fire is Low. Their most recent CD is titled Take Me To The Dance.
The band has seven members, including musicians from South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The lead singer is Zolani Mahola, a very dynamic performer. She shared some of her past and her family did not escape the ravages of apartheid. The band members are quite diverse and reflective of the composition of the new South Africa. She and Kyla-Rose Smith, the violinist in the band, were also impressively gymnastic. The band was fun to watch.
I guess Freshlyground has been around for over a decade. They do have a big following in South Africa. They collaborated with Shakira in performing Waka Waka: This Time for Africa, which was a theme song of the 2010 World Cup.
They are just completing a North American tour. I am sure they will be back. Catch a performance if you can. You will not regret it.
Stephen Barry Band – This group was a total surprise to me although they have been together for 40 years. I guess they have mostly played in Canada. They are a very accomplished Montreal-based blues band. For a bunch of old guys they can still play and play really well. They have a new album, Treat Her Right and I liked that cut. They also did a fine version of the Rolling Stones song Salt of the Earth. As a group they really seemed to be enjoying the performing and there was a great comfort level there. It looked like they were great pals. It was cool to see people doing something they obviously love and doing it so well.
James Cotton Blues Band – Watching James Cotton was like watching history. Cotton is now 80 and he needs a cane and he can’t really sing anymore but he can play blues harmonica. Before his concert performance, the Montreal Jazz Festival honored James Cotton as the second recipient of their annual B.B. King award. The festival gives the award to recognize artists who have significantly advanced the blues.
The experience reminded me of a time I saw John Lee Hooker near the end of his career at a concert in Seattle. I felt lucky I got to see James Cotton. There is something great about honoring old blues legends.
It is an addictive experience to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival. When I was living in Alaska, I was very bummed out that I could not go that year. Once you go, you keep wanting to go back.
In the awful news department, the shootings of the nine black people in Charleston South Carolina is hard to surpass. Like so many, since the Charleston shootings happened, I have followed reactions of politicians and others.
The Mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, called the shootings an act of “one hateful person”. He said, “The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate”. Riley also said the lack of gun control in the United States was “insane”.
Various presidential candidates have weighed in. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry initially suggested the fatal shootings were a drug-induced accident. On CNN, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, was just “one of those whacked out kids”. Graham went on to say: “There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them”.
To date, I have not seen the Charleston shootings placed in a historical context. Most politicians seem to see the shootings as isolated tragedies outside history and carried out by a crazed lone gunman. To see things that way is shallow and it assumes terrible things like the Charleston shootings exist independent of past events.
South Carolina has a long history as one of the most racist states in the country. I don’t think the shooter’s actions can be understood outside that background. While senseless murder borders on the incomprehensible, the shooter’s extreme racism came out of his world and life experience.
The tradition of racism in South Carolina long predates its history becoming an American state. The African slave trade had deep roots in South Carolina. It has been estimated that after the Middle Passage over 40% of African slaves reaching the British colonies before the American revolution passed through South Carolina.
The key port of entry was Charleston and Sullivan’s Island, a nearby island. Slaves were typically screened for disease on the island before they were sold in Charleston’s slave markets. Many slaves went on to work in the rice fields in South Carolina, a particularly brutal work environment.
Before discussing South Carolina’s history, I did want to mention a bit more about the Middle Passage, the slaves’ journey from Africa to America. The crowding on the voyage was so severe, the ventilation so bad, diseases so rampant, and the food so poor during the trip (which lasted five weeks to three months) that a loss of 14-20% of “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. Millions of slaves experienced that hellish journey.
South Carolina became rich off the slave trade. No other colony relied on slaves more. By 1760, Charleston was among the richest towns in America.
However, the white population lived in some fear of slave revolts. In 1739, the Stono Rebellion, a slave revolt, resulted in 21 whites and 44 blacks killed. Most of the captured blacks were executed – a few who survived were sold to markets in the West Indies. Severed heads of the rebel slaves were placed on stakes on the road outside Charleston.
South Carolina passed a comprehensive Negro Act of 1740 that made it illegal for slaves to move abroad, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money and learn to write English. Owners were given the right to kill rebellious slaves if necessary. If the slaveowner perceived the slave as “rebellious” that was enough to justify killing them.
Even after South Carolina joined the United States, slavery remained its way of life.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had gained his freedom, planned a slave insurrection that was to take place on Bastille Day. Vesey was co-founder of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – the same church the Charleston shooter just violated.
It is a fascinating story but Vesey did not succeed. Two slaves who were loyal to their owners informed on him. The South Carolina court ultimately convicted 67 men of conspiracy and hanged 35, including Vesey. Four white men were also arrested in connection with Vesey’s planned insurrection. The white community in Charleston feared the growing abolitionist movement in the North. The conviction of the white men was a warning to white sympathizers who might support black slaves.
Interestingly, the mayor of Charleston at that time, James Hamilton, blamed the insurrection on Black Christianity and the AME African Church, an increase in slave literacy, and misguided paternalism by masters toward slaves. I do wonder if the Charleston shooter picked the Emanuel AME Church because of its long historical role and leadership of the Black struggle.
In the 1990’s, African-American activists in Charleston proposed the erection of a memorial to honor Vesey’s anti-slavery effort. That effort did not meet with success. In 2014, a statue representing Vesey as a carpenter was completed but it was not placed near the main tourist areas.
On April 12, 1861, cadets from the Citadel fired the first shots against the United States at Fort Sumter. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union even before that. The secession declaration outlined South Carolina’s principal reason for leaving the United States:
“…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”
At the time of the Civil War, only 2% of South Carolina’s black population was free although African Americans did comprise the majority of the state’s population.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the South Carolina Legislature passed new Black Codes (also known as Jim Crow laws) to control the work and movement of the allegedly free former slaves. These codes essentially attempted to reimpose slavery by another name.
Many South Carolina whites felt betrayed by the actions of their ex-slaves. During the Civil War, African Americans had deserted en masse and many joined the Union army. Not too long after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan emerged, dedicated to reinstituting white supremacy.
South Carolina was one of the most notorious zones of Klan activity. Between 1877-1950, South Carolina had 164 lynchings in 36 different counties. Lynchings were a form of terrorism designed to maximize fear among African Americans. They were a tool to enforce segregation. Lynchings were often very public events where Black men were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking crowds.
After President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877, the white power structure worked to unravel the reforms of the Radical Republicans. South Carolina again returned to unrestricted white supremacy. In fact, white supremacy was state policy. Blacks were excluded from the South Carolina political system in every way and were prohibited from voting.
The most famous South Carolina politician of the late 19th century was Governor Ben Tillman. Tillman had a deep-seated fear of Black power. The white leadership followed what was known as the Mississippi Plan designed to disenfranchise blacks. The plan made voting registration more difficult through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Segregation remained the norm until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. The State had enforced legal racial segregation in all public facilities. On the extralegal side, night riders firebombed churches and homes with the ongoing intent to intimidate. Black churches have long been targets of white supremacists. I am old enough to remember the church bombing in Birmingham Alabama when four little girls were murdered.
For 60 years, African Americans had no political representation in South Carolina. It was not until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Blacks regained suffrage.
While much has changed in South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flies at the state capital. Imagine if the swastika flag still flew over Germany and if Germans justified it on the basis of “heritage”. South Carolina is awash in Confederate memorials allegedly celebrating its Southern heritage.
The actions of the Charleston shooter cannot be seen apart from the racist history of South Carolina. The shooter said his intention was “to shoot Black people”. Allegedly he said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go”.
Racism is learned. Even though it is pathological, bigotry is not mental illness. Pictures in the media of the shooter show him with the Confederate flag as well as the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). These are all symbols of the ideology of white supremacy.
I would speculate that the shooter turned to white supremacist ideology to reverse his own feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy as an unemployed high school dropout. White supremacy gave him an identity.
The shooter’s actions are consistent with a powerful strain in the history of his state. Unless we see the underlying racism, we will not be challenging the forces who push the shooter and people like him.