THE IRONY OF THE SOLID SOUTH
Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 18651944
By Glenn Feldman
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The "Reconstruction Syndrome" and the Calcification of Conservative Culture
I will teach my children and they shall teach their children to hate the government.
—An Alabama woman, 1866
The south began its move toward the modern Republican Party in 1865.
Is this too much to write? Does it sound too deterministic, too teleological, too ... illogical? Does it dismiss too much Democratic dominance—decades of it, in fact?
Yes, probably so. Yet as outlandish as the statement is, as counterintuitive as it may at first seem, there is more than just a kernel of truth behind it.
To be sure, the realignment that eventually came to the south did not take a direct route but was fraught with fits and starts, turns and detours, potholes, congestion, delays, and even a breakdown or two. There were times when those guiding the journey wondered aloud whether they were even on the right track. Perhaps more fatefully, there were crossroads and routes to alternate destinations not taken. And yet, viewed from a distance, the southern journey toward the modern Republican Party can seem as ineluctable as it has been constant. For the journey has never been a one-sided affair. Like lovers, the GOP moved toward the south at least as fast as the region came toward it. And the implications, as much as anything else, have been truly national in scope and eminence.
To understand the nature of this curious statement, we must first travel back to the immediate moment after the great southern watershed of civil war—Reconstruction—and, in part, to that most elemental expression of southern white defiance: the Ku Klux Klan. For it was in the crucible of war and Reconstruction that the American South solidified its essential and enduring personality—a personality and culture that would dictate the path of partisan allegiance for the foreseeable future, and then some.
The history of the New South, the post-1865 South specifically, is of course influenced mightily by racial concerns. While race remains the most important key to understanding the region's history—and its political and social developments—the issue runs deeper and broader than that solely. In fact, much of the postwar south can be understood most clearly in terms of the chronic appearance of what may be termed a Reconstruction Syndrome—a set of powerful beliefs that have shaped southern history and culture for a century and a half. The attitudes that make up this syndrome, fortified by race, were originally born of the psychological trauma of military defeat, occupation, abolition, and the forcible imposition of a new political order. After the initial trauma, the syndrome has repeatedly manifested itself in the South—rising to the surface most clearly and violently in times of acute stress. As a result, for more than a century after Reconstruction, the dominant white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant South was largely distinguished, and distinguishable, by the recurring component tendencies of the syndrome: very strong anti-black, anti–federal government, anti-liberal, anti-Yankee, anti-outsider/ foreigner, and pro–militarily patriotic beliefs.
The Second Reconstruction cemented and personalized these convictions in the minds of a new generation of white southerners and their children. To a large extent, these unfortunate tendencies still persist at, or just beneath, the surface of much of the present-day South—shaping and coloring the region's approach to politics, economics, and social mores. Often these tendencies appear in softer, sanitized, more euphemistic forms. Yet appear they still do, as an almost manic concern for states' rights, local autonomy, hyperindividualism, an unfettered—almost fetishistic—view of freedom, political conservatism, sectional pride, traditional values, religion, and gender roles (in fact, reverence for all things traditional), pride in the white race's leadership and achievements, disdain for hyphenated Americanism in favor of ethnic, racial, and cultural homogeneity—in sum, for all of the things that "made this country great."
The southern reaction to war—replete with epidemic waves of violence—was a movement reflective of its time, to be sure—a desperate attempt not to conserve the society in which southerners had lived but to turn it back, back to the status quo antebellum. For the years immediately following the great conflict represented a chaos and anarchy of apocalyptic proportions. The events of 1861–65 literally ripped apart the world in which white southerners had lived. The South lost a war it fully expected to win. It was defeated, humiliated, and occupied by what it considered a foreign power. Slaves were set free, granted political rights, and called the equals of their former masters. Farms were destroyed, mules and implements lost, land pillaged, and towns laid to waste. One in every five southern males was killed, two-thirds of all southern shipping lost, and over nine thousand miles of railway destroyed. It was within this crucible that the white southern people began to fashion their response to disaster.
An older school of historians excused the more violent and indefensible manifestations of southern response—such as the Klan—as the natural and understandable reaction of a defeated country and largely left it at that. While this interpretation may account adequately for the birth of such resistance, it does little to justify the order's subsequent and bloody career. Nor is it of much use in explaining the group's metamorphosis from a convulsive social reaction to the paramilitary arm of southern political conservatism and a society dedicated to acts of terrorism. The early apologies for the Klan, of course, do not satisfactorily address why it failed to stop at targeting political rivals but grew instead to punish perceived social and economic enemies, eventually trespassed into the arena of personal morality, and, most important, why the majority of white society in the Deep South supported, condoned, or tolerated it.
The Ku Klux Klan did not invent racism. It seems at once obvious, yet still necessary, to make this point. Nor did the KKK institute the practice of racially motivated violence and repression in the South. Alabama, much like its sister states, had a long and bloody antebellum tradition of violence aimed at keeping black men and women "in their place." In the interim between Appomattox and the first appearance of the Klan, the Heart of Dixie erupted in a series of convulsive acts of brutality aimed at the newly freed blacks. What groups like the Klan did later was provide the basis for organized and sustained racial and political repression.
Because of the protestations of some that the Klan's actions were aimed only at "impudent Negroes" and that good "darkies" need not be concerned, it is worth defining the former term. In 1865 the insolent included former slaves who dared to leave the land on which they had lately been human chattel, visited town in a gesture of their newfound freedom, voted the Republican ticket, or refused to work for the miserable wages proffered by their former masters. All ran the chance of being called "uppity niggers" and incurring the risks and wrath associated with that dangerous label.
White southerners who cooperated with the new Republican governments (scalawags) and northerners who came south after the war (Union League and Freedmen's Bureau carpetbaggers) also made up a good number of Reconstruction victims. The Union League was an overtly Republican organization that enjoyed initial support from hungry north Alabamians but lost white members roughly at the pace with which the freedmen joined. Northern teachers and social workers who came south to provide poor relief, education, and improvement for blacks in the wake of war and the carnage it bequeathed were primarily from the Freedmen's Bureau. Of course, as in the aftermath of any disaster or dislocation on the order of war, profiteers came south as well. But most native whites viewed education for the freedmen as unacceptable, a threat that would make blacks insolent rather than self-assured, militant rather than devoted to their new liberty, and dangerous rather than dependent on, and subservient to, white people.
The vitriol became almost immediately potent. Carpetbaggers were "the lowest, the meanest ... vermin," actual "scavengers" who plundered a downtrodden region, as one pro-Klan newspaper assessed. Like Judas Iscariot, scalawags were the "vultures and carrion crows" of radical Republicanism, living only to thrust their disgusting beaks into the "vitals of the white people," a south Alabama paper offered; "a mongrel assemblage, reeking with African odors, and rank with the foul smell of the unwashed" who had rushed up to Washington to beg for the privilege of torturing the southern people as "Satan went up to ask to ... afflict Job."
In the summer of 1865 violence aimed at black people reached epidemic proportions in Alabama. Carl Schurz, a German-born Union general charged by Congress to assess conditions in the South, recorded that efforts to hold blacks in a state of subjection were of a "particularly atrocious nature" in Alabama. African Americans attempting to leave plantations for the first time were exposed to the most savage treatment. Whites of all types and ranks held the harshest sentiments toward blacks since they had been emancipated and lost their protective status as property. The maiming and killing of black people, Schurz reported, is accepted in Alabama as one of those "venial offenses which must be forgiven to the outraged feelings of a wronged and robbed people."
A team of federal physicians stationed in Montgomery and Selma corroborated the harsh assessment. At one point they treated thirty-one assaulted freedmen (sixteen who died), three women who had had their ears cut off, two men with chins removed, and one man who somehow survived seven stab wounds, two pistol shots, and a third of his arm lopped off. The surgeons reported that the provocation for most of the attacks was the attempt of newly freed blacks to come to town. Similar reports poured into Congress from the port city of Mobile.
Captain W. A. Poillon, assistant superintendent of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands in the south Alabama counties of Clarke, Choctaw, Washington, and Marengo, and along the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, further substantiated the wantonness and shocking nature of the brutality. Local police are "hostile to color," Poillon reported. Armed and marauding gangs of whites rob, insult, and assault "the helpless freedmen with impunity.... [P]rejudice and a vindictive hatred to color is universal here ... and the only capacity in which the negro will be tolerated is that of slave." Blacks have "no right that the white man respects; all is anarchy and confusion; a reign of terror exists, and the life of the freedmen is at the mercy of any villain whose hatred or caprice incites to murder." Whites organized themselves into patrols, using dogs, to control the roads and pathways. The unfortunate who "attempts escape" from the dragnet or "he who returns for his wife or child, is ... shot or hung." Blacks were still forced to stay and work on plantations without any pay. So many freedmen had been killed that the roads and rivers in south Alabama "stink with the dead bodies" of those who tried to flee. "Murder with his ghastly train stalks abroad at noonday and revels in undisputed carnage," the captain wrote, "while the bewildered and terrified freedmen know not what to do. To leave is death; to remain is to suffer the ... cruel taskmaster, whose only interest is their labor wrung from them by every device an inhuman ingenuity can devise." The "lash and murder" were used to intimidate those whom "fear of an awful death alone causes to remain, while patrols, negro dogs, and spies (disguised as Yankees) keep constant guard over these unfortunate people."
Violence was the blunt instrument by which white society preserved its privileges-political, social, economic. The ties between all three were strong during Reconstruction-and amplified throughout Alabama by the dominant Conservative and Democratic press. Consider the attitudes of the Southern Advertiser out of Troy, urging its readers to arm every man for a civil struggle no less important than Chancellorsville or Chickamauga, to rout these "pestiferous Radicals and send them [back] ... to the hellish dens that vomited them up."
Though antebellum law prevented slaves from learning how to read and write under pain of death, once peace came illiteracy was used as the main pretext against their voting—though it was also tied to prejudices about black morality and the grim reality of subsistence wages. They are a "thoughtless, mindless and stupid people," the Eufaula Tri-Weekly Times opined, an "indolent and unambitious" race possessing only the lowest in moral and intellectual development, agreed the Autauga Citizen. Shall Alabama be placed at the mercy of "an indolent, ignorant, semi-barbarous black rabble?" the Choctaw Herald chorused.
White supremacy was the one constant regardless of where in Alabama one looked—despite the volumes that have overstated the differences between Alabama's various regions. North Alabama or south, hill country or Black Belt, whites in the state were on the same page when it came to race. In some ways the north, populated by far fewer blacks, was worse. The Klan was certainly more powerful there. It was utterly repulsive, wrote the Bluff City Times, to be seated with "Sambo with all his filth and stench" in a railway coach or at a dinner table, or to be lodged under the same roof. Every feature of the white man differs from the black, a hill-country newspaper argued: "The nose is different.... The form and size of the mouth, the shape of the lips and cheeks ... the apish chin." His skull is thicker than the white man's, the Shelby County Guide continued. "The middle part of the foot does not touch the ground.... [It is] the foot of the gorilla. The negro is a negro, and only a negro ... an inferior race [who] should [never] govern ... in America, a superior set of men."
Of particular concern to Alabama's Conservative and Democratic majority —the representatives of business and wealth—was (as is common to nearly all times and places) the cost of labor. Specifically, the Conservative Democrats worried aloud over the prospect of carpetbaggers and scalawags convincing freedmen that they did not have to accept the execrable wages white planters were offering.
Such insolence flew in the face of everything sacred in southern society: caste, class, and social hierarchy. Blacks were being promised a "golden age of idleness and luxury," a south Alabama newspaper complained. African Americans were being played for the "ignorant dupes" they are and showing an unnatural and unattractive "contempt for the rights of property," a paper in north Alabama agreed. Others reminded the freed slaves that working for whatever was offered was an ineffable religious duty; it was part of "God's law" not to be idle. Such conservative, pro-business, and wealth cosmology found its antecedents, of course, in Calvinist and Puritan theology. Unleavened in the South by the New England commitment to education and the commons, the religious, ethnic, and reform diversity of the North, transcendentalism, abolition, women's suffrage, large populations of Quakers, Jews, or Catholics, or a diversified economy, the Calvinist connection between piety, material success, and God's favor mixed during the antebellum period to exacerbate a southern coolness toward social responsibility. The combination exploded when combined with the reflexive martial patriotism of war and Reconstruction and the region's subsequent "New South" desperation for industrial development at any cost. So was born "The Southern Religion." In its more extreme rightist forms, elements of nineteenth-century theologies like Christian Reconstruction would reappear under different monikers from Social Darwinism to the Tea Party. They had a long and special resonance in the South.
Excerpted from THE IRONY OF THE SOLID SOUTH by Glenn Feldman. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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