No Basis for Northern Smugness in the Battle Against Racism – posted 7/19/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/22/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/22/2015 under the title “North has its own set of demons”.
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.