Thursday, May 23, 2019

More Lessons Learned in Montgomery

The recently opened Legacy Museum, eight blocks away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Lynching museum), is on Coosa Street.  Coosa Street is close to the riverfront, and that area of Montgomery enjoying a revival.  Someone built a minor league baseball stadium down there, home to the Montgomery Biscuits, an AA Southern League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.  Lots of trendy places are popping up downtown.  In fact, the city of Montgomery has won awards for its downtown development.  I suppose it was a good sign that I had a little trouble finding a spot to park the Buick.  My only interest was getting inside the Legacy Museum.

The museum, built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned in Montgomery, is halfway between a river dock and train station where Africans were brought to town, and a marketplace where they were auctioned off as slaves.  A windowless exterior wall of the museum displays this simple phrase as a mural, taken from a poem written by Maya Angelou.

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again

from The Pulse of Morning

The Legacy museum takes on an ambitious task.  It attempts to trace our country history from the beginning of slavery,  past the Civil War, through the Jim Crow years, to today’s America.  Brian Stephenson, the force behind the national memorial for Peace and Justice, cites mass incarceration of blacks in the South, convict leasing,  and disproportionate minority confinement in today’s prisons, coupled with the pervasive violence experienced by minority citizens at the hands police in communities across the country  today as one long string of racist institutional discrimination still present in America today.

My interest was more limited.  I wanted to understand the time period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the day four black girls were killed in an explosion in that church in Birmingham, Alabama.  That’s plenty  enough for me to wrap my head around. 

After the Civil War ended the Emancipation Proclamation was never challenged in court.  But to ensure the abolition of slavery across the country Lincoln pushed for passage of a thirteenth amendment to the constitution and insisted Reconstruction plans for Southern states require abolition in new state constitutions.  The 13th amendment was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, ending legal slavery.

Rather than experiencing retaliation by black freedmen at the conclusion of the Civil War, the “horrors of Santo Domingo” as predicted and feared by southern whites, the opposite occurred.  In Memphis, between May 1 and May 3, 1866, racial violence was ignited after a shooting altercation between while policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army.  Mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freedmen, attacking, raping, and killing black men, women, and children.   Federal troops were sent to quell the violence.
Later a congressional committee established that blacks suffered most by far in the altercation.  46 blacks and 2 whites were killed, 75 blacks injured, 100 black persons robbed, 5 black women raped.  Property losses included 91 homes, 4 churches, and 8 schools burned in the black community.  Many blacks fled the community.
By 1870 the black population in Memphis had fallen by one quarter compared to 1865.  Specific causes for the riot suggested competition between white Irish immigrants and blacks for housing, work, and social space contributed greatly.  In addition, white planters wanted to drive freedmen out of Memphis and back to plantation to support cotton cultivation with their labor. Such violence was a way to enforce white supremacy after the end of slavery.

A similar event, but more political, occurred in New Orleans on July 30, 1866 the site of a reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention.  Republicans in Louisiana called for the convention after a Democratically controlled legislature enacted “Black Codes” and refused to give black men the right to vote.  Black Codes included prohibiting blacks from voting, bearing arms, gathering in groups for worship, and learning to read and write. 

Democrats considered the reconvened convention illegal and a Republican attempt to increase their political power in the state.  The violence that ensued was both racial and political, and widely seen as a continuation of the war.  More than half the white Democrats were confederate veterans, and nearly half those supporting the Republicans were black veterans of the Union Army.

It is not known which group fired first, but the black marchers were unprepared and many unarmed.  The white mob attacked blacks both on the street and within the convention hall. The result was 150 black casualties including 44 deaths.  In addition, three white Republicans were killed along with one white protester. 

Those deadly events which occurred just before the midterm elections of 1866, along with other reports of widespread violence against black persons throughout the formerly confederate states, sparked national outrage outside the South and mobilized voters to support the Republican Party’s progressive platform advocating expansive rights and protections for African Americans.  Republicans won a landslide victory and gained both a veto proof majority ad control of the legislative agenda. The progressive caucus devised and passed a civil rights program broader than anything Congress would attempt for another century. 

First, they passed the Civil Rights act of 1866 declaring black Americans full citizens entitled to equal civil rights.  Then they passed he Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate any doubt about the constitutionality of civil rights.  The 14th Amendment establishes that all persons born in the country, regardless of race, were full citizens of the United States and the states in which they resided entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law.  It was officially adopted in 1868.

Perhaps most importantly they passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 which also granted voting rights to African American men while disenfranchising former Confederates.  That legislation dramatically altered the political landscape of the South and ushered in a period of progress.  In elections for new state governments, black voter turnout neared 90% in many jurisdictions.  Black voters, who comprised a majority in many districts and a statewide majority in Louisiana, elected both white and black leaders.
 More than 600 African Americans, most former slaves, were elected as state legislators during that period.  Eighteen African Americans served in state executive positions including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, superintendent of education, and treasurer.  P.B.S. Pinchback became the first black governor in America (and the last till 1990) when he was elected as governor of Louisiana in 1872.

During that time Reconstruction states sent sixteen black representatives to the U.S. Congress, and Mississippi voters elected the nation’s first black senators; Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce. 

Those newly elected racially integrated Reconstruction state governments took bold action.  They repealed discriminatory laws, rewrote apprenticeship and vagrancy statues, repealed (even if briefly) corporal punishment, and sharply reduced the number of capital offenses in their justice systems.  They organized to elect black sheriffs, chiefs of police, and were empowered to serve on juries. 

I had no idea new black citizens achieved so much so quickly after the civil war.  Why were those efforts not sustained?  How did the South go from such racial progress to the hell of terror lynchings represented in such a short span of years? The answer is found in both politics and the life of southern communities. 

I struggled to keep going through the museum to find answers to those questions.  As I walked into the past, the years and the history unfolding as I made my way through corridors filled with facts and photos, I tried to simply learn and not reflect.  I knew this new knowledge would affect me later, and that I could learn more once I was safely home in the shack.  But I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering. 

What if instead of a being a white baby born in 1951, smack in the middle of the twentieth century, and becoming politically aware of political and social events around me in the 1960’s, I was instead born a black boy in Alabama a hundred years earlier?

This year would be 1919 and I would be 67, looking back on life begun as a slave in 1851.  In theory, on paper, I would have been declared free in 1863 by Abe Lincoln’s proclamation when I was 12.  Had I stayed in the South I would have seen that promise, that first blush of advancement, essentially reneged.  At 22, in 1873, I would most likely be uneducated and living in poverty. 

As a white man in 1973, age 22, with my family’s help and support I graduated from college and teaching English in Ottawa, Illinois.  I owned an old car.  I was debt free, single, and had my whole life ahead of me.  I felt as if anything was in my grasp.

What would my choices have been as a young black man in Alabama?  Certainly not college.  I would be lucky to be literate.  Maybe I would have made my way upstate to Birmingham and found a place in the new black community there.  But probably I would have remained in cotton country, the only life my family and those around me knew.  What would I have imagined my future to hold as a young black man in Alabama?  I doubt I could have foreseen just how bad my life had the potential to be.

I would learn later as one who worked with social workers that empathy can be a cruel two-edged sword.  To excel in that field requires a high degree of empathy.  But possessing it and applying it to those one is charged to help, whose lives are often shattered by their life experiences, can impact the helper in ways they never dream.  As I made my way down the corridors of the Legacy museum in Montgomery, I began to feel the future of African Americans in the postwar South slipping away.

Slowly, the former confederate states began to reorganize and assert themselves into the political life of the union of states they tried so desperately to defeat.  Social equality began to divide the Republican Party.  Blacks and progressive whites advocated the full eradication of white supremacy, while conservative whites still supported some forms of racial hierarchy and separation.  Virtually all black voters were Republican.  The party began to take freedmen’s votes for granted and shifted its attention toward courting “moderate” white swing voters. 

In the middle of all this change, elected officials struggled to control increasingly violent lawless groups of white supremacists in their state.  What began as social clubs of former confederate soldiers morphed into large paramilitary organizations that enlisted thousands of members from all sectors of white society.  Collectively, aided by the tacit endorsement and silence of the broader white community, members of those groups launched a bloody reign of terror that would overthrow Reconstruction and sustain generations of white rule.

Next-Who did the lynching?  How did they sustain the violence over so many years and get away the it?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Civil War and its Aftermath

The Civil War was fought over slavery.  It was the burning moral issue of its time for most Americans, but in the South it was also an economic issue.  Should it be expanded?  Should it be allowed to exist but contained?  Should it be abolished?  The presidential election of 1860 tipped the scales towards an answer to those questions.
The policy debate was whether new states being formed and admitted to the union in western territories should be allowed to keep slaves or be “free” states.  Both the North and the South agreed with the conclusion that the power to decide the question of slavery for the territories was the power to determine the future of slavery itself.   

Abraham Lincoln, running an as a Republican from Illinois, supported banning slavery in all new U.S. territories, but did not stipulate the prohibition of slavery in states where it currently existed.  
Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Illinois senator who defeated Lincoln in 1858 for that post, ended up representing the “Northern Democrats” after the Democratic party split.  He asserted that settlers in a territory should have the same rights as citizens in any state in the Union to decide on the establishment or prohibition of slavery as a purely local matter.

“Southern Democrats” stormed out of the convention before Douglas was selected.  They nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky as candidate for the “Southern Democrats,” who took the position that there was no constitutional federal authority over such questions as slavery but rather state sovereignty empowered states to expand slavery as they wished.  It became known as the “states’ rights” ideology and though framed as a broad constitutional power it was created to advance slave state interests with federal authority.  It was a demand for federal slave protection, with the implicit threat of secession if that demand was not met. 
John Bell, a Tennessee senator representing the Constitutional Union Party, took the stance that equal numbers of free and slave states, as embodied in the Missouri Compromise, should become a constitutional mandate.

You know the rest of that story.   Lincoln, Douglas, and Bell, candidates who all favored preserving the union, won 82% of votes cast nationally.  Voters at that time were white men only.  The Democrats split, voting on both sides of the slavery issue, and Abraham Lincoln, whose party platform was built upon the most stringent of the slavery containment planks, won a plurality and became the first Republican president of the United States.
But before he could be inaugurated, seven states with cotton-based economies declared secession and formed the Confederacy; Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.  They were soon joined by Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.  They named Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their first and only President.

A newly formed Confederate Army, financed by wealthy plantation owners and others who had an economic stake in preserving slavery, began seizing federal installations within the territory it claimed as a separate nation.  Both the North and the South prepared for war.  The confederates assumed European countries, especially England, were so dependent on their cotton that they would intervene, but none did, and none recognized the sovereignty of the new Confederate States of America. 
Despite the lack of European support, on April 12, 1861 Confederate forces fired on Forth Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston, South Carolina.  The North declared war on the Confederacy, and the Civil War began. 

If the North’s intentions regarding slavery were not clear before the war, they were made clear by an executive order issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 called the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the federal legal status of more than 3.5 Million enslaved African Americans from slave to free in designated areas of the South.  It allowed that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the former slave became free. 
The proclamation did not compensate slave owners, did not outlaw slavery, and did not grant citizenship to the ex-slaves (called freedmen).  But it did make the eradication of slavery an explicit war goal, in addition to the goal of reuniting the Union.

At that point, if not convinced before, Southern whites believed they were fighting for not only their economic life, due to the large amount of capital invested in slaves, but also their mortal lives as well.  Southerners feared a repeat of the “horrors of Santo Domingo”, in which nearly all white people-including those sympathetic to abolition, were killed after the successful slave revolt in Haiti.  Perhaps that prediction is how rich plantation owners were able to motivate so many poor white Southern men to fight so hard for the economic interests of a few.  Slavery was illegal in much of the North, it was fading in the border states and in Southern cities, but it was expanding in the highly profitable cotton districts of the rural South and Southwest.  
You know how this story ends also.  At about 1:00 p.m. on April 9th, 1865 General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, rides his horse Traveler up to the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox, Virginia, ties him to a hitching post, and goes inside to meet with General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army.   Lee knows the retreat of his army has been blocked by Grant and that continued fighting is futile.  He reviews the terms of surrender that have been drawn up by Grant and asks for one change.

Grant’s terms stipulate that Lee’s soldiers give up all arms, ammunition, and horses to the Northern forces.  Lee points out that Southern soldiers brought their own mounts to their cavalry regiments and would need those animals for farming when they returned home.  Grant agrees to the change.  Lee mentioned that his men had not eaten for several days and are hungry.  Grant orders that 25,000 rations of food be delivered to the Confederate soldiers camped not far from Appomattox. 
With that the American Civil War ended.  The Union of American States was preserved.  From 1861 to 1865 it is estimated 620,000-750,000 American soldiers lost their lives along with an undetermined number of civilians.  By one estimate, the war claimed the lives of 10% of all Northern men 20-45 years old and 30% of all Southern white men aged 18-40. 

As a result of that war the union of our American states was preserved, and 4 million African Americans were freed.  Or were they?

When I got to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly called “The Lynching Museum” on Caroline St. in Montgomery, Alabama it was raining.  I killed a little time inside the building across the street, bought my tickets for both the memorial and the museum, and read up on the place.  It is located on six acres in an old part of Montgomery close to downtown.  The art displayed across the street is the visual and physical manifestation of years of work of a group called the Equal Justice Initiative who have identified more than 4,000 African American men, women, and children lynched between 1877 and 1950.  The researchers believe that thousands more lynchings occurred that will never be documented and recorded.  Those are stories many, including the descendants of the perpetrators of such violence, want never to be told.  Just as many, including those murdered and their families, scream for acknowledgement of what happened.

The rain let up.  I walked across the street in a fine mist which was fading away.  It was quiet when I gave my ticket to the attendant ad went inside.  Few people had ventured out.  The memorial opened just ten months before, in April of 2018.  It was spring in Alabama.  Dogwoods and tulips were blooming that late February morning as I made my way up an inclined walk.

The Lynching Museum is no more than a roof with sturdy wooden beams on which are hung 800 steel boxes, one for each county in the United States where researchers could document racial terror lynchings. 

On those tablets are engraved the names of the victims.  Some 4,000 victims.  In reading the names, my focus went from social problem to individual tragedy.  It’s the names that hold the power.  The individual horror each one represents.  I had much the same feeling I had when standing in Washington D.C. at the Vietnam Memorial.  I quickly became overwhelmed by the names, aware that I could never appreciate the circumstances of each individual death, shaken to my core by the enormous senselessness of it, and horrified that it happened because of the politics and beliefs of Americans who could have stopped it had they chosen to do so.

I tried at first to read names.  I spotted my own family’s name.  William McClure was one of several African Americans lynched in Carroll County, Georgia on March 17, 1924.  St. Patrick’s Day.  Carroll County is just east of Atlanta on the Alabama State Line.
There were children’s names, and women.  Not only were women and children lynched for their own perceived offenses against whites but also in lieu of their husbands or fathers.  When lynch mobs pursued their intended victims they often fled, running north.  To carry out punishment for their alleged crimes their families were sometimes targeted.

The names blurred as the number of steel boxes increased.  And then anecdotal placards began to appear on the walls at eye level, as if to bring my attention back to those individuals who suffered.  I took pictures of them with my I phone, like this. 

Here’s the stories those placards told, one by one.  Read each one slowly if you can, and then move on to the next.

A black man was lynched in Millerburg, Ohio in 1892 for “standing around” in a white neighborhood.

Caleb Gadly was lynched in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employer.

William Stephens and Jefferson Cole were lynched in Delta County, Texas, in 1895 after they refused to abandon their land to white people

Robert Morton was lynched in Rockfield, Kentucky, in 1897 for writing a note to a white woman

David Hunter was lynched in Laurens County, South Carolina, in 1898 for leaving the farm where he worked without permission.

After an overcoat went missing from a hotel in Tifton, Georgia in 1900, two black men were lynched, whipped to death while being “interrogated” in the woods

William Donegan was lynched in Springfield, Illinois in 1908 for having a white wife.

Dozens of men, women, and children were lynched in a massacre in East. St. Louis, Illinois in 1917.

Parks Banks was lynched in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman in his hat.

In 1922, Charles Arkins, 15, was burned alive by a white mob of more than 1,000 people in Washington County, Georgia.

Laura Wood was lynched in Barber, North Carolina, in 1930 after a white merchant said she stole a ham.

Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched in Birmingham, Alabama in 1933 for reprimanding white children who threw rocks at her.

Otis Price was lynched in Perry, Florida in 1938 for walking past a window while a white woman was bathing.

Jesse Thomas was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940 for addressing a white police office without the title ‘mister.”

A black construction worker was lynched at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1941 for insisting a white co-worker return his shovel.

Robert Mallard, a prosperous farmer, was lynched near Lyons, Georgia in 1948 for voting.

Those are but seventeen of the more than 4,000 stories of African Americans lynched in the United States.  Sometimes you are not ready for the things you learn.  Near the end of the exhibit is a stone wall with water flowing over it, a lateral fountain of sorts, with an explanation that the names of African Americans memorialized there are only those that can be documented.  Researchers believe there are thousands more.  In their anonymity they too are paid respect there in Montgomery, within the walls of the lynching museum.

Outside the building there are duplicate steel boxes lying flat for easier viewing.  It was there that I found lynchings documented in my state, Illinois.

Alexander County (Cairo area)                             3

Sangamon County (Springfield area)                   2

St. Clair County (E. St. Louis)                                 40

I was puzzled by the duplicate boxes.  As I left the grounds I asked an attendant about them.
“What’s the deal with the boxes outside?”

“We had those duplicate boxes made for counties, maybe states, across the country to buy and display, hopefully in a good place like their state capitol or in each county capitol.  It’s another way we thought of to create awareness of what happened.  We hope one day they will own their history and come to grips with it.”

“How’s that program going?”
“Very slowly sir.”

When I got back to the parking lot I got in the Buick, rolled down the windows and sat there a while in the quiet.  I knew there were lynchings in the South but I had no idea the enormity of them, how widespread they were, who they murdered.  In my country.  I didn’t see it coming, the way I felt.  I felt hollow.  The day was clearing off.  The sun was about to come out.

Things seemed different than before.