Redemption: Reconstructing the South
Examining the historical context of the Blues is tricky for anyone, though perhaps doubly so for Whites. The music was built, freely played and enjoyed by people of color whose lives, livelihoods–and, sometimes, deaths–were shaped by forces on the loose in the American landscape that are unexamined and unfamiliar to many listeners. I do not believe this is out of callousness generally, but is more due to the fact that this dark history is glossed over or entirely absent in our schools.
History, in fact, is the worst taught subject in America–not out of disability, but out of fear. The actual history of America contradicts cherished myths of America. To study our actual history–to question the myth of America–is widely considered to be subversive and unpatriotic.
Our popular history is littered with familiar myths, startling omissions, and sometimes outright lies that allow uneasy truths of our actual history to slip ever deeper into a forgotten past so as not disturb our collective sleep. Many of these myths surround issues of greed, race, and violence. And, sadly, they continue to color our perceptions of each other. When our perceptions are based on myths, our understanding and actions will be based on myths. Truth needs a place at our table, no matter how startling. We can deal with a hard truth. We cannot deal with lies. We cannot heal with myths.
How we heal our communities, understand our circumstances, and endeavor to create measurable progress, depends on whether we continue to regard each other dimly through a history crippled by myths, half-truths, and lies, or see each other and how we got here in the clear, cold light of historical facts.
Years ago, after thanking us for the examples we have given the world–Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, engaged nonviolence–Desmond Tutu, said that South Africa wanted to return the favor. He and his country were offering us a gift in return, something America badly needs: a truth commission. As a nation, we have yet to take him up on it. But it is something individuals attempt. But, without widespread agreement on our history, we are condemned not only to repeat it, but to carry it, a millstone around our necks. No one person can put down this burden. It doesn’t work like that. It will take all hands to get it off our necks. The power to lift it is agreement. We need to agree on the past to reconcile the present and open the future. The burden of our history must be shouldered, and later surrendered, together.
We are not alone in preferring myths over reality. The Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the English and the Germans have all subscribed to sanitizing their histories, and all at the same cost – if the truth will set you free, lies enslave you.
Well-taught, history makes the present more comprehensible: not by providing answers so much as by raising questions. Every new fact blazing into our skies brings with it a trail of questions: some worthy, some not. The trick, as always, is to find a good question. A proper history makes the road we’re on clearer; a tenaciously held myth gets us lost in the weeds.
As a matter of record, I was not taught this history either, but have come across it in the reading and work that I do to deepen my understanding of African, African-American, and American culture, music, and traditions, as part of my attempt to make myself more useful on stage.
I thank you for reading along.
This spring in New England, I’m drawing on three remarkable books to fill in some of the potholes in our history:
After Appomattox: How The South Won The War
Stetson Kennedy (University Press of Florida, 1995)
Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War
Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 2006)
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
Louis Menand (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001)
One of the most startling myths about our history–a pat lie endlessly repeated in general history books and courses at almost every level–is that following our bloodiest war, the Civil War (the North’s ‘War of Rebellion’; the South’s ‘War of Northern Aggression’), Reconstruction of the South ‘failed’.
The sheer passivity of this description belies the truth.
Reconstruction didn’t have a chance to ‘fail’. It was violently and brutally murdered along with hundreds-to-thousands of black American citizens who were terrorized and abandoned to organized white mob violence by a Federal government and State governments unwilling–or, in at least one case, unable–to exert themselves to protect the Constitutional rights, lives, and property of their newest citizens.
The history of the violent end of Reconstruction is well-told in Stetson Kennedy’s After Appomattox: How The South Won The War and Nicholas Lemann’s more recent Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. These books, provide chilling, detailed, historical accounts of how the North and the Federal government abandoned black voters and citizens to organized bands of bloodthirsty vigilantes and Confederate veterans bent on winning after the war what they could not win during the war: the continued oppression of Blacks and the virtually complete suppression black and Republican votes (back when Republicans were the party of Lincoln).
Reconstruction was finished off by the wholesale terrorizing, lynching, and murder of innocent black citizens, voters, and officeholders by marauding Whites. It is here that we find sad and shocking precedents in our own short history for the sort of barbaric sectarian violence ripping apart the neighborhoods of Baghdad, the countrysides of Darfur, Afghanistan, and Somalia today, where memories are far longer.
We are rightly outraged at the torture killings by Iraqis who are now routinely drilling holes in the skulls of their living neighbors, removing fingers, noses, tongues, ears, and scourging them with fire before finally beheading or shooting them. But our outrage is untempered by the certain knowledge that Mississippians did these very things to their fellow Mississippians from 1875 until 1965 with deadening regularity and with assured impunity. In the white South, a jury of your peers routinely nullified the rule of law.
And this violence wasn’t committed in some abandoned neighborhood under the cover of night. In the early decades of the Twentieth Century, these mutilations, maimings, and executions were often carried out right in the town square, with women and children gathered around: picnics down by the courthouse. This is well-documented in contemporary newspaper accounts and photographs. Less than seventy-five years ago, postcards of lynchings were routinely mailed all over the country. Souvenirs. It is a wonder America doesn’t know.
Across the South, prompted by convenient, but unfounded rumors of imminent black uprisings, ‘race riots’ erupted all over the country causing the wholesale killing of Blacks. Nicholas Lemann in Redemption assures us that there were race riots in Mississippi in the 1870s, but they weren’t started by Blacks. These ‘riots’ were well-orchestrated acts of political terrorism planned and executed by Whites who took up arms against their black neighbors to remove their Federally guaranteed Constitutional rights and take away their newly granted freedoms, property, and lives.
Starting in Mississippi in the mid-1870s, Whites launched campaigns of indiscriminate violence, assassinating legally elected black officeholders, local black leaders and voters, cutting the legs out from under the Union victory, won at such terrible cost.
Black citizens were left unprotected by State and Federal authorities and had to fend for themselves against the White Liners, White Leagues, former Confederate soldiers, and the Ku Klux Klan. These groups rampaged across the South, often crossing State lines, to participate in raids and attacks bent on stopping Black participation in what Whites considered ‘their’ society and ‘their’ democracy.
In Lemann’s Redemption – his title, a term used by Whites to spin the campaigns of terror and unprosecuted murders that ended Reconstruction–it is clear that the key to the success of this strategy lay in a deadly combination of the war weariness of the North, the political timidity and hedging wariness of President Grant, and the long-standing willingness of northern Whites to ignore the ugliness, violence, and inhumanity of white Southerners and formerly of slavery–so long as that unpleasantness remained out of view and out of mind in the South.
According to Louis Menand in his prize-winning book, The Metaphysical Club, the groundwork for the Civil War was surprisingly set with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Menand writes:
“The Fugitive Slave Law was the least-debated item in the Compromise of 1850, but it radicalized the North. It pushed many previously passive unionists into active animosity toward the South–not because they considered the law an encroachment on the liberties of black Americans, but because they considered it an encroachment on the liberties of Northern Whites.
“It was ‘a degradation which the North would not permit,’ wrote Ulysses S. Grant near the end of his life, and he regarded it as the prime instigator of the war: ‘[T]he great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.’”
The Supreme Court ruling that affirmed this law in the Dred Scott decision enjoined Northerners to participate in the return of escaped slaves from the free soil of the North to the torment and vengeance of their Southern owners. This law, and the shameful Supreme Court decision upholding it, quickly transformed a fringe radical Abolitionist movement into a major force in American politics, polarizing Northern voters and the Congress, and setting the stage for war.
The willingness of Northerners to parse their concerns about the treatment of Blacks and the institution of Slavery in this way–going along with it, so long as Northerners could remain at some comfortable moral distance from it–played itself out again a quarter of a century later in 1875 when rampaging Whites began terrorizing and slaughtering black voters and officeholders, bringing Reconstruction to its violent end and ushering in nearly a century of Jim Crow. This time they were not forced to look upon it or participate in it. Federal forces stayed home.
Rumors of armed black uprisings were used over and over again across the South to whip up fears and then to justify violence by the white community. Northerners were unwilling to re-fight the Civil War, or even to return Federal troops to guarantee black voting rights and guarantee the peace. Northerners and the Federal Government turned a blind eye to the killing, fatally content to let the South be the South. This was an attitude that was to hold sway for nearly a century.
Detailed in Lemann’s Redemption, Mississippi’s senators and congressmen, knowing full well that they were fronting a violent overthrow of will of the United States government, Reconstruction, and the Constitution, stood calmly in the chambers of Congress and assured their colleagues in Washington of their determination to guarantee, in the absence of Federal troops, Black participation in state and federal elections.
Even as their constituents were scourging, hanging, shooting and burning the bodies of black voters all across their state, Mississippi’s politicians busied themselves in laying the ground work for segregation, the myths of white supremacy, black uprisings, and the ‘failure’ of Reconstruction.
To the lasting shame of the Federal government–and dishonoring the sacrifices of Northern soldiers in the war–Northern interests turned a blind eye to the slaughter of Blacks in Mississippi. As Lemann notes, in one representative Mississippi county where 20,000 Republican votes were tallied in the early 1870s, following the unbridled violence of 1875, in the following election, only four Republican votes were cast. And it is likely those were cast at the cost of their lives. It was this lethal combination of Southern violence and Northern indifference that did more than anything else to preserve the desperate privations of Blacks and to maintain the privileges of Whites in the Old South for the ninety years between 1875 and 1965. Building on the foundation laid by Slavery, the effects of these ninety years have proved quite durable.
The news of Mississippi’s success at suppressing black voter participation by pairing distant calm assurances of their statesmen in Washington with the brutal savagery and indiscriminate violence of lower class Whites against their black neighbors quickly spread across the former Confederacy. Following their example, Whites in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida, South and North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia did the same. The Klan routinely marched in costume in the July 4th parades and counted mayors, governors, sheriffs and city councilmen in its ranks, proud, upstanding civic-minded men.
On this score, in his wonderful biography Josh White: Society Blues, in detailing White’s run-ins with McCarthy his now infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), Elijah Wald quotes John Stephens Wood, the Georgia Representative who was HUAC’s chairman at the time. Wald writes, “when asked why HUAC was not investigating the Ku Klux Klan, [Wood] replied ‘The threats and intimidations of the Klan are an old American custom, like illegal whiskey-making.” The year was 1950. No scandal attended this statement.
It should be noted that violence was not the only tool used to remind Blacks of their perilous place in the society. They were routinely cheated, fined, and confined. Convicts were leased to businesses and landowners and provided a ready supply of cheap or free labor. The law was not their friend. The legal apparatus became simply another tool to harm and intimidate them. And this sort of oppression cannot be safely tucked away in pages of the history books either.
The New York Times recently reported the results of a study of the American justice system which showed that when people with no previous criminal record turn up before a judge for sentencing, Blacks are incarcerated eight times as often as Whites. If an illegal drug is involved in the charges, Blacks are imprisoned 49 times as often as Whites. This sort of treatment of Blacks by our legal system clearly has deep roots. Today, in 2007, there are far more Blacks in prison than in college. Second chances go to Whites.
In the 1960s, Northern consciences–and the Federal government–were finally offended by the widely televised attacks on well-dressed and well-behaved civil rights demonstrators by white policemen with fire hoses, clubs, and police dogs. Southern violence entered their living rooms. They were also roused to action by the killing of northern civil rights volunteers. It was clear to the North who the more civilized participants in this Southern drama were. Not quickly mind you, but eventually, after nearly a century of unprosecuted lynchings and murders of Blacks, Federal authorities finally dispatched Federal troops into the South; troops that could have – and should have – been sent in 1875.
And so, in the mid-1960s, the Reconstruction of the South began once again.
Any attempt to deepen one’s appreciation of the Blues while ignoring the circumstances of the lives of the people who made it will fall desperately short. This dark part of our history has echoes in our present day race relations, our economic, and civic lives. It also has an unsettling resonance in the world events, sectarian violence, torture, and terrorism in which we have embroiled ourselves today.
The Blues were noticed at the turn of the Twentieth Century, as the first and second generations born out of slavery came of age. The generations that birthed the Blues were raised on the desperate turmoil, hope, bloody terrorism, and final violence that shut the door on social and political change in the South for almost a century, conclusively ending the postwar Reconstruction initiatives.
This violence locked Southern Blacks in an artificially brutal and constricted world where the Constitution of the United States and the laws of our land simply would not protect them. There they remained throughout nearly all of the 20th Century.
To borrow a phrase from Alan Lomax’s book of the same name, this is ‘the land where the Blues began’. This is the social landscape. Hemmed in by what Jonathan Kozol refers to as a ‘surround of force’–poverty, despair, and violence–these folk sang.
And part of the triumph of this music is a profound testimony to the plain fact that, no matter what’s happened to you, if you can get up in the morning and sing: you win.
But of course, you have to have breath to sing.
May 7, 2007