A Post for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2019

[NOTE:  Last year at this time, I published a post for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday that focused on my contribution to an assembly commemorating King’s career and significance given at my school on January 16, 1987.  This post might have suggested to readers that Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) had already successfully made the transition from neglecting King’s contributions to honoring them regularly, but no. . . . And the “problem” was, of all things, academic.]

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Biography and A&E)

In those days, we scheduled first semester final exams for early in January, after the obligatory Christmas break that carried us from late December into the New Year. This meant, of course, that even if AFPS wished to honor Dr. King around the time of his birthday celebration, we were limited because of the need to use whatever time we had in early January to review with our students in preparation for their semester exams.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, I served as Interim Chair of the History Department.  When the time came for me to put out the department’s newsletter for January 2000, giving short shrift to Dr. King and his contribution to modern American history, even if our excuse was an “academic” one (i.e., “We simply can’t take the time to honor Dr. King because to do so would interfere with our paramount task of preparing our students for final exams”), was gnawing at me.  So, at the conclusion of an editorial recounting my memories of the events on April 4-5, 1968, I added this paragraph:

At this school, where all our students and a growing number of our faculty have no living memory of Dr. King and what he did, we certainly teach about him at the appropriate point in our various courses.  Nevertheless, the King holiday and the week of activities related to it are no cause for celebration here.  Instead, we use the time to study for, take, and grade final exams. Rather than join the rest of the country each year in wrestling with the question of King’s place in the American story, we hold ourselves aloof, prisoners of an academic calendar that requires us to conclude the Fall semester after Christmas.  Dr. King deserves better, and so do we.

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I know you’re probably ahead of me here, but my impassioned editorial plea had no immediate effect on AFPS’s schedule.  A few years later, though, we did opt for moving final exams back to before Christmas, again for academic reasons.  This opened January for serious consideration of Dr. King’s place in the American pantheon. And we all benefited from the move.

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As you know if you’ve followed this blog for a while, one of the topics I emphasize is “The South and Civil Rights.”  This year I’d like to call your attention to two of those posts which, I believe, might help you reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his place in modern American history:



I hope you enjoy them.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern History | 4 Comments

The Second Reconstruction: The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1940s-1968, Part 2 (Teaching Civil Rights, 12)

[NOTE:  This is the concluding post in my treatment of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement from World War II through the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.  For part 1, go here.  A list of suggested sources appears below.]

* * * * *

Lyndon B. Johnson

John F. Kennedy’s successor, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, was sincerely devoted to the idea of equality and seemed determined to prove that the South had at last turned its back on the heritage of slavery.  Johnson asked Congress to enact civil rights legislation as a memorial to the slain Kennedy.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places, unions, and hiring for federal jobs; and authorized the Attorney-General to file suits on behalf of victims of racial prejudice.  This measure would accustom Americans to being in the presence of “the Other” regularly, in restaurants, theatres, stores.  As was the case in education, the underlying idea was that frequent association with people of different races was especially important for children.

Congress also moved to extend the principle of equality to voting.  In August 1962, Congress approved and sent to the states a proposed twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution ending the use of poll taxes by states in federal elections; the amendment was ratified by January 1964.

Congress subsequently enacted the Voting Rights Act (1965), which sent federal registrars to enroll voters in the South.  In the long run, this measure would change the face of the American electorate.  As the percentage of African American registered voters grew, even diehard racist politicians would have to begin paying attention to them.  Moreover, blacks would themselves have increasing opportunities to run for and, eventually, to win elective office.  At President Johnson’s urging, Congress also launched a “War on Poverty,” the key to Johnson’s effort to build a “Great Society.”

Yet, these measures, which dealt with de jure segregation (enacted by laws), a practice largely confined to the South, gave scant attention to de facto segregation (developed and enforced by custom rather than by law), the norm in the rest of the country.  Moreover, this burst of Johnson-inspired legislation did little or nothing about economic discrimination.

* * * * *

Like Americans who had hailed the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier, supporters of civil rights were quite optimistic over passage of the Voting Rights Act in July 1965.  Yet, according to a noted Southern historian, optimists during both periods shared two assumptions that were to prove fallacious: “The first was that the legal end of the institution abolished meant the end of the abuse that was outlawed.  The second was that the institution abolished was responsible for all, or nearly all, of the troubles of its victims.” (Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, 188)

Even as de jure segregation was crumbling in the South, de facto segregation was on the rise in the North, as was the decay of the inner cities and the percentage of African Americans who were unemployed.  (Nationwide, more than 40% of non-whites lived below the “poverty level,” more than three times the rate for whites.)  These conditions were virtually untouched by the new civil rights laws.

* * * * *

Only five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles exploded into flames.  Hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed, thirty-four people were killed, and four thousand were arrested.  Between 1965 and 1967, civil unrest broke out in seventy-six American cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey.  Many white Americans saw these disturbances as revolutionary upheavals, but sympathetic whites viewed them as  symptoms of self-destructive despair.  (Subsequent studies showed that 58% of Watts’ males were unemployed at the time of the riot there and 37.6% in Chicago.)

Justice Thurgood Marshall (wikipedia)

The federal government responded to this civil unrest in both symbolic and substantive ways.  President Johnson appointed the first African American Cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, at Housing and Urban Development; and the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.  Congress passed an Education Act in 1967 that set up Head Start (pre-school) centers in areas where disadvantaged children entered schools already behind their peers and established special tutorial programs to help older students.

A 1968 law created employment guidelines (“affirmative action” quotas) that pressed employers to hire minorities in roughly equal ratios to their proportion of the population at large, and stringent real estate regulations attacked segregated housing patterns. Violations of this, or any other, civil rights law became a federal offense.  (Note:  Another source places the development of “affirmative action” in the Nixon years, when it grew out of the interpretation placed by federal officials and judges on “a vaguely worded section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”  [The Great Republic, 573-574])

Kerner Commission Report (pbs.org)

In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot, President Johnson appointed a National Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois.  The basic conclusion of the Kerner Commission’s report, issued in 1968, was that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  (Quoted in Woodward, Strange Career, 195) The Commission reported the failure of the civil rights movement to achieve racial integration and reconciliation, but it did not abandon those goals or despair of ever achieving them.  The Kerner report also deplored the persistence of segregation and “the continuing polarization of the American community.”  Yet, it did not accept these conditions as inevitable nor consider them desirable.

That the developments alluded to in the Kerner Commission report had some basis in fact was clear not only from urban violence and white backlash in the mid-1960s but also from the emergence among younger African Americans of a new set of ideas, “Black Power.”  This term meant different things to different people, from black-owned economic enterprises, to ghetto-centered political power, to emphasis on pride among African Americans in black history and culture.

Stokely Carmichael (npr.org)

For black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of SNCC and the organizers of the militant Black Panthers, “Black Power” had “two aspects that inevitably proved divisive: the repudiation of integration and cooperation with white liberals; and the condoning of violence.” (Problems in American History, Vol. II: 421) “Black Power” badly split African American leadership, because established, older leaders like Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and A. Philip Randolph would not countenance violence promised by some militant black leaders.

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There were other problems in the larger American society in the late 1960s.  The civil rights movement increasingly came into conflict with whites, especially in the North, as its emphasis shifted from de jure to de facto segregation.  Moreover, the militant rhetoric of “Black Power” advocates frightened many white citizens:

“Black Power stimulated white resistance and, perhaps, black riots.  Blacks rioted because whites were not doing enough. The riots made whites want to do even less.  Black resources were not adequate to meet black needs. Militance alienated white allies Negroes needed if conditions were to improve. Things therefore worsened, making black militants even angrier.” (William L. O’Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s, 175)

Urban whites blamed blacks for rising crime statistics and protested efforts to integrate their neighborhoods and schools.  Politicians picked up on this and began to organize their campaigns around pledges to restore “law and order,” code words easily understood by angry white voters.

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was at its height.  The conflict in Southeast Asia was draining money away from President Johnson’s anti-poverty programs; bringing higher prices and higher taxes to the American people; killing ever greater numbers of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black and poor, cannon fodder inducted by the nation’s draft system.

And then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  For many urban blacks, this was the proverbial last straw.  Bloody, destructive civil unrest flared anew in cities across the country.  Stunned Americans, whether black or white, could only grapple blindly with the question of what the civil rights movement would do without Dr. King, who had been the face and voice of African American aspirations since the Montgomery bus boycott over a decade earlier.

Martin Luther King (wikipedia)

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In a sense, the murder of the charismatic King brought the civil rights movement to a halt.  Community integration seemed unsuccessful.  Thanks to the Interstate highway system and the resulting growth of suburbia, middle and upper class white Americans could—and did—leave cities in growing numbers.  Thus, the nation’s urban population increasingly became African American, but the tax base decreased because of what was labeled “white flight.”  This meant that, as African Americans gained control of city governments, they found themselves without the financial resources they needed to govern effectively.

White students naturally accompanied their parents to the suburbs, which meant that urban school systems, even if they once had experienced some degree of integration after Brown v. Board, began to be re-segregated (this time through de facto rather than de jure means).  The eventual, court-ordered solution to this dilemma was mandatory busing, which proved unpopular with whites (and with many blacks as well), especially in the North.

Richard M. Nixon (wikipedia)

The worsening of the Vietnam War was a major factor in the election to the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1968.  Unfortunately, the Republican nominee adopted a so-called “southern strategy” during the campaign to win support of whites opposed to integration.  He also exploited demands for “black capitalism” and used the concept to attract the black middle class; while that might gratify racial pride, it solved no community problems. Part of Nixon’s re-election strategy in 1972 was to adopt a hardline stand against court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance in public schools.

White backlash was no longer violent.  In recent years it had been subsumed in stances against busing, affirmative action, quota systems, and the sort of generalized opposition to the “welfare state” that was part of the appeal of  President Richard Nixon to white voters. While much less vocal, various civil rights organizations from the 1960s still existed, along with newer ones like The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH, but in general the Civil Rights movement appeared to lack cohesion and a clear sense of direction.

By 1968, legal barriers to integration in voting, public accommodations, education, and social relations had pretty much been removed. But economic barriers remained.  It was to the elimination of those hurdles that the Civil Rights movement, with continuing support from the federal government, might have turned.  Whether this would happen, and whether, if it did, the effort would receive support from a majority of white Americans, were questions well worth pondering.

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Branch, Taylor.  America in the King Years (3 vols., 1988-2006).

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, eds.  Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Meacham, Jon, ed.  Voices in our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement.

O’Neill, William L.  Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s.

Raines, Howell, ed.  My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered.

Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff.  The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.

Sitkoff, Harvard.  The Struggle for Black Equality.

Sokol, Jason.  There Goes My Everything:  White Southerners in the Age of Civil Right, 1945-1973.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Career.


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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Sun Belt, Taylor Branch, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The “Second Reconstruction”: The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1940s-1968, Part 1 (Teaching Civil Rights, 12)

[NOTE:  One of the most significant developments in American history since the end of World War II has been the modern civil rights movement, which noted historian C. Vann Woodward termed “the Second Reconstruction.”  Between the 1940s and 1968, the movement went through several distinct, if overlapping, phases.

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The first phase of the modern civil rights movement lasted from World War II through the mid-1950s and was characterized by action on the part of the executive and judicial branches of the government, while Congress and public opinion remained unresponsive.  At the time, African Americans were imprisoned in a rigid caste system, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) and Congress’s failure to enact any civil rights legislation, despite blatant denials of African American rights, especially in the South.

In downtown Washington, D.C., for example, blacks could not register at a hotel, see a movie, order a meal at a restaurant or at a drugstore lunch counter.  When traveling south of the Nation’s Capital, African Americans had to move to the back of the bus or change to a segregated railroad car.  In the Deep South, very few blacks could vote.  In seventeen states in the south and the border regions, Washington, D.C., and in some sections of Kansas, Arizona, and New Mexico, black students were required by law to attend segregated schools.  Few African American high school graduates had the opportunity to go to college, and black families constituted a disproportionately high percentage of Americans living in poverty.

* * * * *

Things began to change, slowly at first, a bit faster once the U.S. entered World War II.  In Lane v. Wilson (1939), the Supreme Court delivered the deathblow to the so-called “grandfather clause” as a means of limiting the number of African Americans who could vote.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Wikipedia)

Two years later, in 1941, in response to A. Philip Randolph’s threat to “march on Washington” to protest racial discrimination in hiring for the defense industry and in the armed forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which involved the national government for the first time since Reconstruction on the side of racial equality.  In 1944, in Smith v. Allwright, a case argued by lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Supreme Court struck down another southern tool for limiting the black vote, the “white primary.” A series of Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1954 put an end to racial discrimination in higher education.

* * * * *

World War II and the Cold War that followed combined to make civil rights a national issue again.  During the war, the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, which had begun during World War I, continued.  The Nazi doctrine of the “Master Race” seemed to many Americans to resemble the view of black people held by Southern whites.  The post-World War II breakup of former European empires launched the U.S. and the USSR into a competition for adherents among the “colored races” of Africa and Asia—because of this, American racial policies became grist for Communist propaganda mills.

* * * * *

President Harry S Truman (Wikipedia)

The loyalty of African Americans to the Democratic Party since the New Deal began to pay dividends in 1947, when President Truman established a committee on civil rights.  The committee’s report led to the re-emergence of civil rights as a national political issue for the first time in the twentieth century.   In February 1948, Truman asked for enactment of a new Fair Employment Practices enforcement law and the establishment of a permanent civil rights committee.  In July 1948, the President issued an executive order abolishing segregation in the nation’s armed forces.

President Truman’s stand on civil rights split southern Democrats from the national party in the 1948 presidential election.  Truman emerged victorious in November, in one of the great upsets in American political history, but the southern Democratic bloc in Congress nevertheless torpedoed the President’s various civil rights proposals.

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A key Supreme Court decision came in May 1954, when, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court outlawed segregation in public schools, thereby reversing the doctrine of “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in another triumph for the NAACP and its staff of dedicated civil rights attorneys.  In 1955, in a ruling implementing the principles set forth in Brown, the Court ordered lower courts to see to it that desegregation of the nation’s public schools proceed “with all deliberate speed.”

Southern segregationists interpreted the 1955 Brown implementation order as a signal that they could delay integration with impunity—for what exactly did “with all deliberate speed” really mean?  Virginia took the lead in the new southern policy of “massive resistance,” an assertion of state rights to block integration of public schools.  Other states joined in passing laws authorizing the closing of public schools by state and local action rather than integrate.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Wikipedia)

As the Ku Klux Klan revived in the South, and as the purportedly “better sort” of white southerners formed the White Citizens Council to oppose integration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to reduce the federal government’s role in American society, refused to take the lead in pushing integration of public schools.  Violence greeted desegregation efforts in Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, and, most notoriously, in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when Governor Orville Faubus called out the state’s National Guard to block admission of seven African American students to Central High School in the capital.  Faubus’s action forced President Eisenhower’s hand.  He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered it to disperse white mobs and protect black students.

School integration dragged on slowly during the Eisenhower years, the battle being fought in the courts, school district by school district.  By 1960, four southern states still maintained wholly segregated school systems.  In six other states, less than 1% of black students attended integrated schools.  In seventeen previously segregated state school systems, only an estimated 6.3% of black pupils attended classes with whites, and most of those were in border states with relatively low African American populations.

An important point to remember is that scenes of southern white resistance to school integration were telecast nationwide on the evening news during these years.  This brought a significant shift in white recognition of injustice.  As one observer wrote: “Here were grown men and women furiously confronting their enemy:  two, three, a half-dozen scrubbed, starched, scared, and incredibly brave colored children.  The moral bankruptcy, the shame of the thing, was evident.”

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The possibility of massive, nonviolent demonstrations against segregation had arisen as early as 1941, when A. Philip Randolph had threatened to lead a march on Washington.  The following year, a sit-in in Chicago was staged by a group of blacks and whites who, under the leadership of James Farmer, formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bio. and A&E)

The first post-World War II scene in the drama of nonviolent protest was the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress and local NAACP official, refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man.  Parks was arrested for violating a Jim Crow-era law that permitted blacks to sit in public vehicles only after all whites had been seated.  Inspired by Rosa Parks’ action and led by a young minister, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery’s black residents refused to ride city buses for over a year.  Finally, the city ended discrimination on buses, with a nudge from a federal court injunction.

Dr. King went on to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to make a coordinated, but nonviolent, assault on racial injustice.  On February 1, 1960, four freshmen from a local black college, North Carolina A&T, organized a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter at a Greensboro Woolworth’s store.  King called a meeting that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.  SNCC led 70,000 black and white demonstrators in “sit-ins,” “wade-ins,” and “kneel-ins” to protest segregation in public facilities, beaches, and churches.

These actions, many of which were televised, kept civil rights before the nation and eventually brought action from Congress and the President, but at a heavy price.  Demonstrations met resistance from governors, members of congress, state legislatures, sheriffs, state troopers, vigilantes, and racist high school and college students, as well as inertia among community, state, and national leaders.

Southern intransigence became so blatant that even the conservative Eisenhower administration eventually was moved to sponsor civil rights legislation, steered through Congress by the Senate’s Democratic Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.  These early bills were largely concerned with voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created a Civil Rights Commission to provide some federal protection for African Americans who wished to register to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1960 tried to safeguard voting rights and stipulated that threatening to obstruct federal court orders was a violation of civil rights.

* * * * *

President John F. Kennedy (Wikipedia)

John F. Kennedy, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, was elected President in 1960 at least partly on an explicit civil rights pledge, but, once in office, he and his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, appeared to be more interested in voting rights for African Americans than in the integration of the nation’s public facilities.  They believed that the ballot would bring black Americans more rights and opportunities than any court or executive action.  Only intense pressure from continuing demonstrations or other dramatic incidents seemed capable of drawing White House support for integration.

Freedom Riders attacked (Wikipedia)

For example, in 1961, James Farmer and CORE organized “freedom rides” on interstate buses to attack segregation and discrimination in southern bus terminals.  An Alabama mob burned one bus and beat up its passengers near Anniston.  The Kennedy Administration sent federal marshals to maintain order after local authorities proved unwilling to protect demonstrators.  In 1962, federal troops were sent to fight off a white mob and protect James Meredith, the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.  In Birmingham, Alabama, police used police and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators.  In June 1963, a sniper lying in ambush shot and killed Mississippi NAACP official Medgar Evers.

Finally, in June 1963, President Kennedy moved to substitute a stronger civil rights bill for the more moderate one then before Congress.  He asked that the Justice Department be authorized to sue segregated school districts; that he be empowered to withdraw federal funds from segregated projects; and that African Americans be ensured equal access to places of public accommodation.

March on Washington (1963)

At this point, rather than wait for Congress to act, Dr. Martin Luther King and other black leaders revived A. Philip Randolph’s “march on Washington” idea to demand passage of forceful civil rights legislation.  In August 1963, an estimated quarter of a million demonstrators (blacks and whites) traveled to the Nation’s Capital.  The nationally-broadcast highlight of this march was Dr. King’s moving “I Have a Dream” address.

President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Texan Lyndon Johnson, who had been instrumental in securing passage of civil rights laws for President Eisenhower in 1957 and 1960.


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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)









Posted in American History, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“My people, yes!”

A Review of:

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash:  The 400-Year Old History of Class in America. New York:  Penguin Books, 2016.

[NOTE:  Like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, had the good fortune to be published during the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign.  And, like Vance’s work, Isenberg’s book soon was dragged into a raging debate over the nature of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s “base.”  In the process, both books were transformed by the “commentariat,” well-educated columnists who had pontificated about the Trump phenomenon for months—and had been proven wrong time and again— into a template that might help them understand Trump voters and, thus–perhaps–get something right for a change.  After Mr. Trump emerged victorious, thanks to the Electoral College vote, both books were front and center in the ensuing post-election brouhaha, as the commentariat tried yet again to save face.

Like any good publishing house when one of its books emerged at just the right time to guarantee increased sales, Penguin arranged for Professor Isenberg to prepare a “Preface to the Paperback Edition,” and it is here that she is most explicit about her argument.  In the wake of Trump’s victory, pundits described the outcome as the triumph of class over identity, but Isenberg demurs: “The truth is, it’s not one or the other:  class and identity politics operate in tandem.” (xiii)

Although she believes that “the true character of American democracy cannot be generalized,” (xix) Professor Isenberg subsequently offers an “unscientific” generalization of her own: “A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.” (xxviii)]

* * * * *

To Isenberg, the founders of Great Britain’s southern colonies wished their New World “plantations” to serve as a dumping ground for Britain’s “waste people.”  How that was  accomplished varied, from John Locke’s semi-feudal Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) to General James Oglethorpe’s vision that Georgia would “reform debtors and rescue poor men.” (47).  To the surprise of Georgia’s founders, settlers seemed unwilling to play their assigned roles.  For example, the Georgia Trustees’ ban on slavery in their settlements was a losing battle:  Oglethorpe returned to Britain in 1743, never to return; and Georgia settlers were granted the right to own slaves in 1750.

The colonies’ leading “man of science,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, argued that the vast quantity of land available for settlement in British North America was bound to create a society of “happy mediocrity,” whose members would live lives between great wealth and great poverty. (65)  By 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense offered a version of Franklin’s “demographics of mediocrity” that pushed aside any notion of class as a cause of the Revolution, promising that, once the colonists freed themselves from Britain, American breeding habits would allow them to dominate the post-war world.

As early as his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the possibility of developing an “aristocracy of talent” in the new American republic.  Years later, as President, Jefferson acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, where, he believed, yeoman farmers would flourish without recourse to slaves, manufacturing would be discouraged, and a talent-based aristocracy would emerge.  Yet, despite Jefferson’s theorizing, Isenberg contends, class remained a central aspect of American society.

* * * * *

By Andrew Jackson’s day, however, settlers in the American west were viewed by visitors as “crackers” or “squatters,” unflattering terms that merely updated the grim picture of colonists in North Carolina limned by wealthy Virginian William Byrd II in the late 1720s. Thus, the so-called “Era of the Common Man” did not usher in political equality; rather, the popular caricature of the “common man” was “a vivid illustration of class distinction more than he ever was a sign of respect for the lower class.” (131)  Nevertheless, as the presidential election of 1840 proved, both parties in the American political system knew that “common man’s” vote must be sought—and won—no matter what promises had to be made.

* * * * *

In Isenberg’s view, the image of the white lower classes in the South evolved from “squatters” to “clay-eaters” to “poor white trash” during the late antebellum period.  To intellectuals north and south, they ranked even below slaves on the scale of humanity. (135-136)  The link between slavery and  “poor white trash” in the South remained controversial, however, as did the question of whether whites could co-exist with slaves in a West where slavery was legal.

Obviously, in the event of civil war, the South stood no chance if its soldiers were comprised solely of “aristocrats.”  The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, used his inaugural address to posit the superior manhood of all southern whites in defending the new nation and its “domestic institution” of slavery.  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ proclamation that slavery was the “cornerstone” of Southern civilization also helped deflect the hostility of lower-class whites from their “aristocratic” betters. (154-158, passim)  Yet, many poor whites eventually became convinced that the conflict was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

* * * * *

Isenberg gives cursory attention to the era of Reconstruction, for she has bigger fish to fry.  She broadens her focus to consider a national trend in eugenics, the “science” of improving American society by preventing “degenerates” from breeding, through segregating and quarantining the “unfit”; castration of criminals; and sterilization of the diseased and degenerate.  Perhaps not surprisingly, “the rural South stood out as a place of social and now eugenic backwardness.”  (195)

From the rather vaguely defined eugenics movement, Isenberg moves to the impact of the Great Depression on American society.  Popular culture considered white southerners prototypical “forgotten men,” and feared that the nation might be imperiled if it continued to ignore the poverty and economic insecurity of its citizens (sound familiar?).  Yet, “a fear of unleashing genuine class upheaval—which even elite liberals were loath to do—led significant numbers to blame the poor [whites] for their own failure.”  (227)

In looking at Post World War II America, Isenberg examines the “cult of the country boy,” a quick romp through Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, Lyndon Johnson, and The Beverly Hillbillies, among others, who kept the “hick” before the American people and an increasingly intrusive media.  “White trash” did not live in suburbia, though they might populate trailer parks on the edges.  Angry, housecoat-clad, curler-bedecked women, protesting integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, were welcomed by those who blamed “white trash” for the South’s most glaring image problems.

Although southern politicians like Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver tried to domesticate the “hillbilly image” to appeal to the electorate, Isenberg believes that the most successful hillbilly wannabe was President Lyndon Johnson, at least until “his” Vietnam War helped kill the “War on Poverty,” programs designed to uplift the nation’s poor, many of them in the South, through the power of the federal government.

* * * * *

And yet, all was not lost for the cultural image of “white trash.”  Isenberg maintains that, “As identity politics rose as a force for good in the last decades of the twentieth century, authenticity was to be achieved by registering, and then heeding, the voices of previously marginalized Americans.” (269–again, sound familiar?)  Professor Isenberg implicitly assumes that President Richard Nixon’s much-ballyhooed “Silent Majority” was comprised of lower-class whites, and that, by the late 1980s, “white trash” had been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms.” (270)  Yet, the cinematic picture of poor white southerners, in, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Deliverance (1972) remained familiar—and negative.  Ethnic identity was a positive attribute only if a group demonstrated the traditional American virtue of upward social mobility—otherwise, they were “trailer trash” and “welfare queens.” (277)

In Georgia, Democrat Jimmy Carter used a “redneck” campaign to win the governorship in 1970, but six years later, when he won the presidency, Carter ran—and won—according to one observer, on everything he wasn’t: “He wasn’t a racist, an elitist, a sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer. . . an ideologue, a paranoid, a crook.” (282)  We know how well that worked out for Carter in 1980, when he ran for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan, who had a long movie career playing roles that bore little resemblance to his real self.  (But at least Reagan wasn’t from the South.)

The culmination of white trash and redneck chic came, by Isenberg’s reckoning, during the mid-1990s.  Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 presidential election and his years in the White House saw “the national spotlight focused once more on the uneasy relationship between class identity and American democracy.” (296)  At least until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, Clinton had elevated his “white trash” hillbilly persona to a popular culture staple.  Ten years later, Isenberg offers acidly, the Republicans nominated for vice president on John McCain’s ticket “their own (effectively) white trash candidate,” a veritable “white trash Barbie,” Sarah Palin. (303-304)

             * * * * *

In an epilogue on “the long legacy of white trash,” Professor Isenberg returns to her main point, the use of tropes like “white trash” and “hillbilly” to deny the influence of class in the nation’s past and, instead, to blame “inferior” people.  She counters that those in power decide who are citizens and how much voice they’ll actually have in public affairs. (Once again, I’ve got to ask, sound familiar?)

Yet, Isenberg argues, the nation’s underclass, whatever its name, has been part of our story from the beginning, whether or not those who govern, or who write American history, are willing to admit it.  Even if inequality exists, the establishment contends, it’s because some Americans can’t “cut the mustard” when it comes to social and economic progress.  “If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence,” Isenberg asserts. (319)

* * * * *

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance delves deeply into the plight of members of his family and others like them, expatriates from Appalachia looking for a new start in the industrial Midwest.  It’s a very personal study, but one firmly grounded in an understanding of social and economic contexts.

In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg essentially offers an intellectual history of the term “white trash,” more of an “academic” volume than J. D. Vance’s.  Isenberg’s poor white subjects lack agency; that is, because they left few sources of their own, she tends to view them through the lenses of her literary sources, most of them members of the elite.  In a political context, the term “populism” doesn’t even appear in the index, nor does she do much with the conundrum that, during the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, southern elites used “white trash” for their own purposes, while keeping them down otherwise.

* * * * *

Both Vance and Isenberg certainly benefited from the coincidence of their books appearing during a momentous political campaign that had the “experts” baffled, looking desperately for help.  Lots of copies were sold, but didn’t seem, in the end, to have had much impact.  Ah, American culture!  Anybody for “revenge of White Trash” in, say, 2020?


* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in Books, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, Historical Reflection, History, Interdisciplinary Work, Popular Culture, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Age of Jim Crow (Teaching Civil Rights, 11)

[NOTE:  In previous posts (here and here), we’ve seen how southern whites, helped by the growing weariness of the rest of the nation with the post-Civil War “Negro Problem,” regained control of their state governments by 1877 and began, about 1890, to take away the former slaves’ right to vote, despite the addition after the Civil War of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.  Called “disfranchisement,” this process was only part of the new system erected by southern whites to keep black people “in their place.”

According to the tenets of the “New South Creed,” African Americans were supposed to perform most of the menial labor in the region, including the all-important work in the cotton fields.  To do that sort of work in the New South, whites believed, did not require much formal education. Rather, what the supposedly “inferior” blacks needed was an “education” that emphasized manual training and domestic service.

Another aspect of the “New South Creed” was the tenet that whites and blacks desired to live in a world that was rigidly separate but supposedly equal.  While racial segregation was certainly not new in the South in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws institutionalized “the already familiar and customary subordination of black men and women” (Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 230).  According to Litwack, the particular segment of the African American population targeted by Jim Crow laws comprised members of the first generation born after slavery, young men and women who had not been “schooled,” i.e., disciplined by slavery to accept their continuing subordinate roles in the southern scheme of things.]

* * * * *

After slavery, former slaves wanted to use their newly-won freedom to accumulate a few acres of land, make something of themselves and for their children.  Whites, on the other hand, wanted cheap, exploitable labor.  The system that emerged, sharecropping, had all the makings of a compromise at first, but soon created an endless cycle of debt that put whites in the driver’s seat.  Given the whites’ expectations and the blacks’ lack of skill and experience outside of agriculture, there were few alternative ways of making a living available for rural African Americans.

As the Jim Crow system evolved, whites used every opportunity to deny African Americans a way out.  For example, Southern state governments passed laws to punish emigrant agents or labor recruiters who might have offered blacks a chance to leave the farm for a better paying line of work elsewhere. Having accomplished that, the way was cleared for the development of peculiarly southern methods of social control of former slaves:  involuntary servitude based on indebtedness (peonage); the crop lien system; the chain gang; and convict leasing.  As Leon Litwack notes, “After all, the real danger posed by Negroes, in the eyes of many whites, lay in the possibility that they might actually succeed, and that such success would be at the expense of whites and subversive of southern society.” (Trouble in Mind, 149)

* * * * *

So thorough was the system of racial segregation developed in the Age of Jim Crow that, by the time the United States Supreme Court validated the “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision did not have a dramatic impact, because it simply pointed out the obvious to African Americans in the South and to Jim Crow sympathizers everywhere.  The net effect of “separate but equal” was to dehumanize black men, women, and children.

The justice system in the Jim Crow South was heavily stacked against African Americans.  It operated under a double standard, whereby blacks were arrested more frequently and/or punished more severely than whites for the same crimes.  (This double standard also was a frequent target of songs by African American Blues singers.)  In Leon Litwack’s words, “the perversion of justice had become a lasting legacy of the New South” and helped create “an era of unprecedented racial violence.”  (Trouble in Mind, 277-278)

* * * * *

Using a conservative estimate, Litwack writes that almost three thousand African Americans were lynched between 1889 and 1918 in the South, which meant that two to three black southerners “were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week.” (Trouble in Mind, 284)  Those lynched were usually the sons or daughters of former slaves, people “who [unlike their parents] had not yet learned the rituals of deference and submission.” (Ibid.)

When whites attempted to justify lynching, they frequently emphasized the crime of rape allegedly perpetrated upon a white woman by a black male.  However, only about 19% of the nearly three thousand black lynching victims were accused of rape.  Moreover, if lynching failed to scare African Americans back into their “place,” there was always the possibility that the fear and anger of whites could be taken out on entire black communities, in what were euphemistically referred to as “race riots,” like those in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), New Orleans (1900), and Atlanta (1906).

* * * * *

One southern state after another fell into line behind Jim Crow, so that, by World War I, racial policies in the South were strikingly similar to those employed by the white rulers of South Africa.  The system was enforced by law, but also by violence when necessary:  lynching increasingly became a southern pastime, with most of the victims being African American.  Moreover, the Ku Klux Klan, dissolved during Reconstruction, was reborn atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving night, 1915, and spread beyond the South in the decade of the 1920s.

Jim Crow laws even kept pace with changing times and technological advances:  segregation was extended to taxi cabs, buses, and airplanes (and airports), as those became important modes of transportation in the 1920s and 1930s.  No area of southern life was considered too insignificant to require the tender touch of Jim Crow.  As C. Vann Woodward pointed out, “A Birmingham [Alabama] ordinance got down to particulars in 1930 by making it ‘unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other’ at dominoes or checkers.” (C.Vann Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, p.118)

* * * * *

What options did African Americans living in the Jim Crow South have in the face of this individual, and even communal, violence?  An obvious one was to stay in their “place” and “not cause trouble.”  Oh, blacks might issue mild protests, so long as they kept them from escalating into confrontations.  African Americans could also become what Litwack labels “interior exiles,” turning to drugs and crime to ease their pain and assuage their guilt.  Litwack adds that the black musical genre known as the Blues was the product of “the young men and women who had disengaged themselves from the norms and values of conventional black and white society.” (Trouble in Mind, 447)

Perhaps the most desperate African American response to white brutality and oppression was to leave the South.  In 1917, 90% of black Americans lived in the South, three quarters of them in rural areas.  Fifty years later, 75% lived in cities and less than 45% resided in the South. (Ibid., 482)

The black exodus from the South had begun after the Civil War, within the region, from country to town and from the older South to newer regions like Oklahoma and the Mississippi Delta.  In 1879, there was a short-lived departure of southern black “Exodusters” to Kansas.  A generation later, there was an ultimately futile effort to find a place for black Americans to live in Africa, culminating in Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement during the 1920s.

The climax of this movement of African Americans out of the South was the so-called “Great Migration.” Between 1916 and 1919, the prospect of work in northern and mid-western factories during World War I attracted half a million black southerners; almost one million more would follow in the 1920s.  Abandoning the South was especially attractive to members of the younger generation, who perhaps sought “some kind of redemption through migration.”  (Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 495)

Those African Americans who emigrated certainly did not find Heaven in the North or the Midwest, which, like the rest of the nation, were heavily populated by white racists.  But, even if they continued to encounter racism, black southern expatriates knew it wasn’t the Hell of the Jim Crow South.


Chafe, William H., et al.  Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (2001).

Egerton, John.   Speak Now Against the Day:  The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994).

Lemann, Nicholas.  The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991).

Litwack, Leon F.  Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow 1998).

Wilkerson, Isabel Wilkerson.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010).

Woodward, C.Vann.  Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (pb; 1961).

________________. The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd revised edition, 1974).

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Southern History, Teaching, The "Great Migration", The Blues, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching Prep School with a PhD, 4: Q & A ( October 2018)

[NOTE: Earlier this month, I had yet another opportunity to speak with a group of PhD students at My Old Graduate School (hereafter, MOGS) about the job market out there as they are finishing their doctorates.  In the last few years, I’ve had several  such engagements, and I’ve posted a summary of each at “Retired But Not Shy” (see here, here, and here).

As was the case during my last appearance at MOGS, this was supposed to be a “panel discussion” on the topic of teaching at a prep school with a PhD; unlike that former occasion, this one actually wound up as a panel discussion.  The key was the decision by MOGS to offer those who signed up for the session an opportunity to submit questions they wished panelists to address.

Those questions were really good ones, and, despite the fact I’d prepared a ten-minute presentation about my career “beyond the professoriate,” as our instructions originally specified, I decided to jettison that approach and tackle some of those questions, as did my two colleagues.

All of us PhDs had experience teaching on the secondary school level.  I, the only retiree in the bunch, had taught History for nearly four decades at the same “prep school,” which I usually refer to by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School, or AFPS.  A second panelist is in his fourth year teaching Chemistry at a different local private school.  The third panelist, also a Chemistry PhD, teaches at a highly-regarded suburban public school.

What follows includes excerpts from the ten-minute overview of my career that I did not deliver, as well as my responses to several of the questions submitted by members of the audience.]


* * * * *

After I finished a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1968, my wife and I moved to Atlanta, where I entered MOGS, earning an M.A. in 1971 and a PhD. in 1973, both in History.

It wasn’t until sometime in 1972 that I began to look for a college-teaching job, only to discover that there was no such job looking for me.  Yet, I very much wanted to teach History, so I decided to investigate independent secondary (or “prep”) schools, which, unlike public high schools, did not seem to require “Education” courses. (I was mistaken in that assumption, but that’s another story.)

Although I had no offer from a college in 1972, I wound up with three from “prep schools” in 1973, ultimately choosing to join the faculty at AFPS, across town from MOGS, largely because  that school’s salary proposal was the best of the bunch.  (And my family would be able to stay in Atlanta, at least for a while–thanks to the U.S. Army and MOGS, we’d already moved five times in six years of marriage!)

AFPS was willing to hire this PhD, and the explanation is clear in retrospect:  AFPS advertised itself as a college preparatory school, so employing a few teachers whose degrees actually qualified them to teach in college was an asset.  Newly-minted PhDs like me working on the high school level in the 1970s were ahead of the curve, though we didn’t know that at the time.  PhDs on prep school faculties might have been oddities then, but,  having at least some teachers with doctorates on the faculty nowadays is practically a requirement at better prep schools!


* * * * *

Q & A

How do I frame my resume in order to look desirable for a teaching position at a prep school?

Keep in mind that, while prep schools hope to hire “renaissance people,” teachers who know their academic “stuff,” they also have other, more practical needs that must be filled—most from within the ranks of their teaching faculty.  So, let the school know, both in your application and in your interview, what other skills you have, besides a deep knowledge of your chosen field and dissertation topic.

For instance, can you help coach a sport?  Rest assured that most prep schools offer lots of sports options to their students, the overwhelming majority of them at the sub-varsity level, some of which you might have had experience with while in high school or college.  Moreover, “coaching assignments” are not limited to sports teams:  there are activities like debate, the school newspaper, yearbook, student government, music programs, all of which need “advisors.”  There also will be a multitude of clubs and activities that need “sponsors.”

Take the initiative here.  I know from personal experience that, if you don’t tell the school what activity you’d like to help coach, sponsor, or advise, the school will tell you what you’re going to do!  

How difficult is it to navigate the transition from full-time research in graduate school to working in secondary education?

How could I remain at AFPS for nearly four decades?  First, employment prospects on the college level did not improve much over that period.  More importantly, I came to love the job, the students, and the school.  I also evolved from a “History professor” to a “History teacher,” largely, I believe, because of what I’d learned in college and at MOGS.  (Let me add that, if my experience is any indication, the biggest difference between being a “professor” and a “teacher” is that, for a secondary school teacher, students’ accountability is daily, not just a few times each semester, as it might be for a professor.)

  1. I loved History. By the time I finished college, a History major in the School of Arts and Sciences (i.e.not in the School of Education, where I’d been for a few weeks as a freshman), I’d had courses in the history of every part of the world except Africa and the Caribbean. When I arrived at MOGS two years later, I hoped to study and teach American History, but the MOGS History Department required graduate students to select major and minor areas of concentration.  I chose Modern European History as my “minor” field.  Having  to move, at least slightly, outside my comfort zone at MOGS, along with the broad knowledge of my subject I’d acquired as an undergraduate, later prepared me to teach—and even to create—courses at AFPS that were not in “my area of specialization”: for example, Ancient and Medieval History; Introduction to History; History of the Ancient World; and both “regular” and Advanced Placement European History.
  2. Successfully navigating graduate study also helped refine skills I already possessed, as I’m sure many of you have, and these would continue to serve me well on the secondary level—for example, self-discipline; the ability to work independently, and to write and think critically; a facility for organizing and presenting material orally; and managing a classroom (though this proved more challenging in my early years at AFPS than during my time as a teaching assistant at MOGS and an adjunct at a downtown university).
  3. One area where I wish I’d been better prepared at MOGS was “people skills”:  things like working with colleagues; adapting discussions, assignments, and tests to different learning styles of 9th through 12th graders; and the elephant in the “prep school” classroom, dealing with all those parents.  Eventually I developed these interpersonal skills (I’ve written about the process elsewhere–here, here, and here), and, once I was comfortable as a “classroom teacher,” I settled in for the long haul.

Isn’t it true that teachers with advanced degrees are often “looked down upon,” both by colleagues at the school and by professors in the academy?

Perhaps “back in the day,” when I hired on at AFPS, this might have been true, but even then the school already had some PhDs on the faculty, so I never felt alone, or “looked down upon.”

The thing to remember is that, if you secure a position on the secondary level, you need to take it very seriously:  work hard to prepare for your teaching assignments; try to make friends with other members of the faculty; contribute as much as you can to the life of the school outside of the classroom; and, above all, do not be afraid to go to more experienced teachers, especially in your department, with questions or problems.

In essence, you will be judged by your faculty peers by what you brought to the school when you were hired and, of course, how much you contribute to school life as a member of the faculty.  It might seem difficult at first to fit in.  You’ll be trying to prepare your courses, perhaps including some you’ve not previously taught; learn how your school operates; work constructively with colleagues in a new environment; and, if you are married and have a family, try to tend to those responsibilities as well.

I’m sure that each of us on the panel could offer anecdotes about how hard we–and others of our acquaintance–had to work to get over the hump during our early years at our schools, but the task is doable–and the rewards are satisfying. [NOTE:  Each of us did furnish anecdotal evidence that taking on a teaching assignment in a high school was far from being a walk in the park, and more demanding than being a grad school TA.]

As far as the opinions of “professors in the academy” are concerned, college professors are certainly aware of the reality of today’s job market, so most will understand why you’ve signed on to teach at the secondary level.  I still remember the efforts by my dissertation director at MOGS to keep me informed, after I’d become a prep school teacher, of job possibilities on the college level, none of which, alas, came to fruition.  One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was gently to inform him after a few years that, while I appreciated what he had tried to do for me on the job front, I was content in my prep school roost and did not plan to move.

Is secondary education a good fit for me? 

If you are fortunate enough to land a teaching job at a “prep school,” please don’t assume that you’ve somehow “settled for something less.”  This path will be different from the one you envisioned when you entered graduate school, but, like teaching in a college or a university, it has both challenges and rewards and is a job worth doing–and doing well.

Sure, you’ve missed out, at least for the time being, on that tenure-track job at Ivy U., but, if you apply yourself and possess self-discipline (and a supportive spouse, if you are married), you should be able to “keep up in your field”; remain active in professional organizations and publishing (even though your school certainly won’t require that); work with skilled, likable, interesting colleagues; earn a decent salary, with benefits.  And, of course, you can continue to search for that heretofore elusive “college job.”  Now, admittedly, this will not be easy, but it can be done, if you really want to do it!  Once more we circle back to the need for a positive outlook, energy, and self-discipline.

Teaching on the secondary level can be a fulfilling career for anyone interested in working with bright students, sending them out into the larger world knowing that, because of your efforts, they are better prepared than they might otherwise have been.

 * * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845
(University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "Education Courses", building a classroom persona, Education, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Road to Jim Crow, 1875-1900, Part 2 (Teaching Civil Rights, 10)

[Note:  In the previous post in this series, we looked at the short-term consequences of the acceptance, by white southerners, and many northerners, of the so-called “New South Creed,” which offered a prettified picture of the “Old South” and a rose-colored vision of the region’s future.  The triumph of the Creed helped solidify the spread throughout the South of sharecropping, the crop lien system, convict leasing, and the gradual disfranchisement of African American voters.  Stripped of the protections afforded them by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, ratified at the end of the Civil War, bereft of supporters in Congress, former slaves were unable to reverse the racist tide that swept them into the twentieth century.]

* * * * *

Populist Platform (Timetoast)

The main reason given by southern whites for disfranchising black voters was popular disgust with fraudulent elections.  As an Alabama Democrat said, “Now we are not begging for ‘ballot reform’ or anything of that sort, but want to be relieved of purchasing the Negroes [votes] to carry elections.  I want cheaper votes.”  African Americans had been pressured to vote for conservative white candidates while the Redeemers were in office.  Moreover, the Populist Party of the 1890s, which grew out of a farmers’ protest movement, had appealed to both poor white and poor black voters.  Whites felt that the only way for them to maintain political control without also threatening white supremacy was to remove blacks as potential voters.  This feeling reached a peak after the 1896 presidential election.

* * * * *

Southern whites proved inventive in devising ways to trim voter rolls.  Mississippi created the literacy test/understanding clause.  Even an illiterate could vote if he could demonstrate (to the satisfaction of white election officials) that he “understood” a section of the Constitution read to him.  Placing the final decision in the hands of white officials guaranteed elimination of most blacks from voting rolls.  Yet, the “Mississippi Plan” also prevented many poor whites from voting, because they could not afford to pay the poll tax that was also part of the plan.  The literacy test/understanding clause was not ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965, in U.S. v. Mississippi and Louisiana v. U.S.

Then there was the “grandfather clause,” invented in Louisiana.  Under this approach, a poor white might be illiterate, but, if his father or grandfather had been able to vote before 1867 (the year the future 14th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, was sent to the states for ratification—the amendment was declared adopted in 1868)—he too could vote. The grandfather clause was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court almost on a state-by-state basis, with the final decision, (Lane v. Wilson) handed down in 1939.

Another approach to disfranchisement was the poll tax.  Black voters were the main target of this device, but, as mentioned above, poor whites were also affected.  (In some states, for example Mississippi and Georgia, voters had the additional “opportunity” to jump other hurdles, like the literacy test.)  Poll taxes were abolished in registering voters for federal elections by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution (1964), and for state elections in 1966.

Finally, there was the “white primary.”  The Democratic Party in southern states was organized as a “private club” for selecting candidates.  Thus, the Democrats could admit or exclude whomever they pleased from the primary process, which in the South was tantamount to election in the now one-party region. The white primary was finally ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 (Smith v. Allwright).

* * * * *

Although the general economic, political, and social conditions of African Americans in the South plummeted with the curtailment of their voting power, the literacy rate among southern blacks rose from 20.1% in 1870 to 55.5% by 1900.  Moreover, by 1900 there were 1700 black physicians, 21,000 teachers, 15,000 clergymen, and 730 attorneys in the region.

Booker T. Washington (history.com)

Perhaps reflecting on this, a prominent black American of the era, Booker T. Washington, decided that it would be best for his people to forego political equality in hopes of prospering in agriculture, industry, and business.  In his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech at the Cotton Exposition in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park in 1895, Washington made it clear that, if African Americans had to surrender their civil rights in order to cultivate the friendship of whites, then he was willing to pay that price, tacitly endorsing “separate but equal” in his Atlanta address.  Washington also might have been reflecting on more sobering facts while preparing his speech.  For instance, while lynching was declining in the nation at large, it was doing so more slowly in the South.  In fact, lynching was taking on the characteristics of a distinctly southern, and racial, phenomenon.

Extremists of southern racism were reaching a wider audience as the new century opened.  For example, Thomas Dixon’s best known novel, The Clansman (1905), glorified the Reconstruction South’s leading terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan.  The film version of this work, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915), was the first motion picture ever shown in the White House.  The President who asked that it be shown, Woodrow Wilson, was a native southerner.  The speeches of bitter southern racists like “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina and Georgia’s Tom Watson also enjoyed wide circulation during this period.

W.E.B. Dubois (Biography.com)

Booker T. Washington’s “compromise” with Jim Crow alienated another articulate African American, Harvard-educated W.E.B. DuBois, destined to become Washington’s perennial rival.  In 1905, DuBois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, which demanded for African Americans “every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social.”  By 1910, Dubois helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as the editor of its journal, The Crisis.

Despite what DuBois thought—and what African Americans active in the “Black Studies” movement of the 1960s later claimed—Booker T. Washington was not the shuffling, grinning “Uncle Tom” figure in private that he appeared to be in public.  His public role was a necessity, if he were to remain in the good graces of whites, especially those involved in politics and philanthropy.  Privately, however, Washington revealed the Machiavellian personality that lay hidden behind the mask of “Uncle Tom,”  launching direct but secret attacks on Jim Crow railroad facilities and various means of exploiting the black poor,  with mixed results.  He also built up what came to be called the “Tuskegee Machine,” using similar methods to those employed by white urban political bosses.  Washington encouraged support of conservative black businessmen and became President Theodore Roosevelt’s closest advisor on race matters and black patronage for the Republican Party.

Booker T. Washington also dominated the black press through outright ownership, ads, and subsidies.  He used philanthropic funds at his disposal to exert influence over black schools and colleges, church leaders, even secret black fraternal orders.  Like many influential leaders past and present, Washington was firmly convinced that his way was the best way.  Hence, he could brook no criticism.  He used pressure, money, and an elaborate network of spies and informers to frustrate the designs of African American foes like DuBois and to discredit their white, liberal allies in the NAACP.

* * * * *

 So, it seems that there were at least two facets to the so-called “New South”: one, the perception of reality, which no doubt did much to assuage the bitterness of defeat in white southerners and bring about reconciliation of the sections; the other, the actual reality revealed, with benefit of hindsight, in the cold light of statistics (see Part 1).  It seems clear also that, while many Americans, North and South, believed that the emergence of a “New South” brought numerous problems to an end, the fact that it emerged the way that it did raised a host of new issues that continue to bedevil us to this day.

* * * * * 


Blackmon, Douglas A.  Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Hahn, Steven.  A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.

Lemann, Nicholas. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

White, Richard. The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913.

_____________, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd revised edition).

End of Part 2

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in American History, Historical Reflection, History, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Gathering”: Leadership Retreat Devotional, 1999 (Be True to Your School, 6)

[NOTE:  During the 1999-2000 school year, I served as Interim Chair of the History Department at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS).  This assignment meant, among other things, that I was once again “in the administrative loop,” whether I wished to be or not–be still, my beating heart!

One of my responsibilities that year came early, in mid-August, when I joined other members of the administrative food chain on a “retreat” at a nearby conference center.  Our Dean of the Faculty had welcomed me back to “administration” by asking if I would give the opening devotional, and also find time to explain to my colleagues the origins and purpose of a newly-organized “alternative” student religious group for which I  served as an advisor.  Knowing that I’d be back in the classroom fulltime the following year, no matter what happened this year, I decided to combine those two tasks.

I’ve alluded in previous posts to the important role that religion played at AFPS.  The other thing you should know before reading this post is that, each Spring, we returned from vacation to “Christian Emphasis Week,” when the school  brought in religiously-affiliated speakers to discuss aspects of Christianity, usually in a modern context.  Depending upon the invited speaker, these sessions ranged from informative, to moderately interesting, to “Please, God, get me out of this auditorium as soon as possible.”

And it was with the idea of “Christian Emphasis Week” that I began my talk.  What I hoped to do was to use the “Day of Pentecost” described in Chapter 2 of  Acts of the Apostles (when the Holy Spirit enabled an audience in Jerusalem, made up of people from many different areas of the Roman Empire, to hear–and understand–in their own languages, the  Christian message being delivered by Peter and the other apostles) as a sort of metaphor for our school’s annual “Christian Emphasis Week.”]

* * * * *

truth cc.org

[Read:  Acts of the Apostles 2:1-8, 12-15]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? . . .  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are all filled with new wine.”  

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. . . .”

* * * * * 

I think of the Book of Acts every year as Christian Emphasis Week approaches.  It is never easy to be a missionary for Christianity, but surely few who have earned that distinction had so rough a time as the first-century “Christian Emphasis speakers” whose deeds are recounted in Acts.

Devout Jews, certain that the various disciples and apostles of the new creed were blasphemers, sent “truth squads” to dog them on their missionary journeys and, if that didn’t do the trick, to stone them or otherwise punish them.  Local artisans, whose economic well-being depended upon the continued willingness of people to buy handmade silver idols of Roman gods, were not happy to see the missionaries arrive.  Those early “Christian Emphasis speakers,” and the disorders that followed in their wake, were also anathema to town officials and Roman magistrates, whose primary commission from the imperial government was to keep a lid on an always restive populace.

In the passage I read from Chapter 2, Peter and the others got off pretty easily.  The worst the scoffers could come up with was that the speakers must have been “filled with new wine.”  Of course, Peter hotly denied the charge:  after all, it was only 9 o’clock in the morning!  BUT, perhaps the hecklers were correct:  because his message was unfamiliar, and therefore scary to some in the audience, yet he persisted in trying to get his point across, Peter was, at least in a metaphorical sense, “filled with new wine,” and certain of his listeners did not like the taste of it one bit!

* * * * *

But what has this got to do with our Christian Emphasis Week speakers?  During our current President’s stewardship, we have adopted a broader approach to our annual showcase for the Christian message.  Some of our speakers have presented the old, familiar Christian “wine” to our students, while others have trotted out some of the new stuff.  While many of our students savor the “old wine,” some of them gag on the new, setting the stage for scenes like the one two years ago, when some of our more “committed” young Christians behaved badly during a presentation by one of our speakers and subsequently received a richly-earned dressing down from our President.

One result of this incident is the real reason I’m standing before you this morning.  A group of our seniors, seeing this episode as all too typical of the approach to Christianity by many of their peers at AFPS, went to one of our English teachers and asked her to sponsor an “alternative” religious group that would be a “safe place” to discuss Christianity and other religions,  setting attendees free from what they considered censorious comments by those of their peers who were already convinced that they had “solved the cosmic riddle” as far as Christianity was concerned.  This teacher agreed, got approval from the administration, and asked several faculty members, of whom I was one, if we would be willing to help out.  And so, though its name wasn’t decided upon for a while yet, “the Gathering” was born.

Two of the student founders of “the Gathering” elaborated upon the purposes of the group in a letter they sent to their successors at the start of last year.  I’d like to share their thoughts with you this morning:

–Please keep in mind that the purpose of our group is not to create two warring camps of Christians at our school!  We intend for this group to be in addition–not in competition–to Friday Morning Fellowship.  Do your best to avoid bashing other people’s views.

–We created “the Gathering” because many of us came to see a need that wasn’t being met:  this school simply did not provide a place for non-judgmental, open, and honest dialogue concerning Christianity.  Above all, we want “the Gathering” to be a place to LISTEN–not a place to throw in your two cents simply because you have two cents.

–Furthermore, while this is definitely a Christian group, we want “the Gathering” to be a place where inquisitive people of all religious persuasions will feel not only welcome, but valued.

–Finally, the purpose of “the Gathering” is not to cultivate some sort of group mentality, where all of us believe exactly the same thing.  Rather, we hope that our meetings will help aid the individual on his or her spiritual journey.

* * * * *

So, what kinds of things go on at “the Gathering”?

  1. During the first year, the seniors who started “the Gathering” were dedicated to it.  They set the agenda, assigning topics, leading discussions, and bringing food.
  2. Last year, while our seniors were excellent at leading discussions, they were so overcommitted academically and extracurricularly that they did little planning for sessions of the Gathering; in fact, we could not even count on their regular attendance.  Thus, the burden of setting the tone for each session increasingly fell on younger students or on faculty advisors.  (As a result, our student leaders for the coming year are two sophomores.  One is Jewish, while the other approaches theology from the conservative Christian perspective).
  3. Among the topics we discussed last year were:  a) “current events,” e.g., Assembly/Christian Emphasis speakers; news stories, like one featuring a student at a Kentucky Christian school who was barred from graduation because she had gotten pregnant; or something said by a religious figure on television; b) the essentials of Christianity–a popular topic:  what must one believe to call him/herself a Christian?  This included a presentation on the Nicene Creed, not just what it said but why (i.e., treatment of its historical/theological context); c) extracurricular–visits to a Roman Catholic service and to The [Jewish] Temple.  There has also been some discussion of the group undertaking a service project, but this hasn’t yet come to pass.

The faculty who regularly attend “the Gathering” is an interesting mix.  Two are the “usual suspects”:  our school Chaplain and the Chair of the Bible Department.  Like them, most of the rest of the faculty who attend are active in our churches and have studied theology, either formally or informally, or, in a couple of delightful cases, through surviving many years of Catholic schooling.  Thus, we tend to see theology as to some extent an academic discipline, an area in which it is definitely OK to ask questions, to use the minds God gave us to investigate what others have said, thought, and written about their encounters with God’s word and its application to our daily lives.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us advisors believe that faith is not a destination to be reached once and for all before going off to college, but a journey full of pitfalls and detours, done in fits and starts, which can last long beyond the high school/college years.

If “the Gathering” sounds like your kind of place, either as a regular or intermittent visitor, please consider yourself invited.

Rather than end this devotional with a prayer, let me close with the words of one of the founders of “the Gathering”:

If every single one of us is made in God’s image, then what better way to gain a clearer understanding of God than to gain a clearer understanding of each other?”


* * * * * * 

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Books, Current Events, Education, Historical Reflection, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Sun Belt, Teaching, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Road to Jim Crow, 1875-1900, Part 1 (Teaching Civil Rights, 10)

[NOTE: As we saw in the previous post in this series, a key element in the eventual acceptance of the defeated South back into the Union on a (more or less) equal basis with the rest of the nation was the development by skilled southern propagandists of a set of ideas historians refer to as the “New South Creed.”  This intellectual construct basically proffered the willingness of the South to be made over in the image of the victorious North in exchange for the rest of the country’s acceptance of the need for southern whites to control their region’s race relations.  The acceptance by both parties of these terms smoothed the way for the “Compromise of 1877,” which marked the symbolic end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.  Yet, acceptance of the Compromise had other, long-term consequences that would prove significant for the history of the entire country.  (For a list of suggested reading, see the end of Part 2.)]


* * * * *

Several factors contributed to the acceptance by the North and West of the South’s insistence that its white male citizens be allowed to control the racial destiny of the region.  One was the general northern disgust at the excesses of Reconstruction, especially the activities of purportedly “inferior” former slaves.  Another grew out of the “New South Creed,” the desire for reconciliation between the sections. The final impetus paving the way to the “Jim Crow” era in the South was the revival of racial prejudice in the North, not only because of the excesses allegedly committed by the freed people and Radical Republican Carpetbagger and southern white Scalawag allies, but also because of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century shift in the sources of American immigration from “superior” northern European people to allegedly “inferior” southern and eastern Europeans.

* * * * *


Although the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been written to protect emancipated slaves after the Civil War, they had to be enforced by the federal government and sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court to be effective.  However, by 1877, with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, the national government essentially washed its hands of the issue; and, in a series of rulings between 1873 and 1896, the Supreme Court indicated that it also was  unwilling to lead a crusade for African American rights.

For example, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the justices invalidated parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, arguing that the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, could not be stretched to cover “social discrimination,” and that the 14th Amendment could be used only against deprivation of civil rights by states, not discrimination by private individuals. Most famously, the Court’s decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) gave the stamp of approval to the “New South Creed’s” doctrine of “separate but equal.”  Plessy thereby validated the various “Jim Crow” (“legal segregation”) laws enacted throughout the South beginning in the 1890s.

* * * * *

Essential to the strategy of southern whites controlling the region’s racial destiny was the manipulation of the black vote.  During Reconstruction, freedmen cast their ballots regularly for Republican candidates.  Former Confederates, some of whom had been disfranchised during Radical Reconstruction, saw this black voting pattern as evidence that African Americans were either being “coerced” or “manipulated” by Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.  This view ignored a couple of obvious facts:  Republicans were followers of the party of Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator”; and southern Democrats represented the party that had supported slavery and been in the forefront of the movement for secession.  So, why should freed people support Southern Democrats?

As part of their campaign to weaken Radical Republican regimes during Reconstruction, the former Confederate states adopted extra-legal measures to reduce the number of black voters.  For instance, they hid ballot boxes, or, as under South Carolina’s “eight-box law,” made sure that there were as many ballot boxes at each polling place as there were offices at stake.  Voters, unassisted, were required to deposit a separate ballot in each box.  If they could not read, or were poorly educated, they were almost certain to invalidate at least some ballots by depositing them in incorrect boxes. Southern states also changed locations of polling places overnight without informing black voters.  Other tactics included applying economic pressure on black tenant farmers and sharecroppers and, if that failed, resorting to intimidation by violence-prone groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

As white Democratic “Redeemers” regained control of state governments, they used state  legislatures to take other steps.  A favorite was gerrymandering, the redrawing of electoral districts to dilute African American voting strength.  In South Carolina, to take one case, legislators approved a map that concentrated 25,000 of the state’s 30,000 black majority in a single congressional district.  Redeemers also launched investigations of Radical governments, hoping to discredit leading Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and Freedmen, thus showing how mistaken giving the vote to former slaves had been.

* * * * *

Extra-legal methods of disfranchising black voters were carried over into the era of “Redemption” of states from Radical Republican rule.  Nevertheless, there still was a lingering fear among white southerners that, if southern states moved to disfranchise African American voters, the federal government might step in. Forces were at work, though, that would make possible, beginning in 1890, the adoption of direct, “constitutional” means of disfranchisement.

As Redeemers fell from power in their turn, they were replaced by demagogic, racist politicians elected by angry, lower-class Southern whites.  These new leaders reflected the desires of those who had elected them to pass “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws and take away the right of freedmen to vote.  This movement would be accelerated after 1896 because many southern Populists blamed their defeat in the presidential election of that year on manipulation of the African American vote by wealthy, conservative whites in the South’s “Black Belt.”

As the United States began to expand abroad and acquire colonies in the late nineteenth century, the federal government had to decide whether the native populations of, say,  Hawaii and Puerto Rico ought to have the same civil and political rights as white residents.  Government officials found southern white arguments about limiting the rights of allegedly “inferior” peoples (in this case, colonial subjects) especially appealing. Moreover, upper class white northerners were appalled by the influx into American cities, beginning in the 1890s, of supposedly inferior “New Immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe. Fearing for the “purity’ of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” white northerners could at last share the fears of southern whites.

* * * * *

Legislature of the State of Mississippi, 1890 (Wikipedia)

So, in the last decade of the 19th century, the time seemed ripe for southern states to do legally, through constitutional means, what they had previously done only extra-legally.  Mississippi was the first state to do so (1890), followed by South Carolina in 1895.  The movement to disfranchise African American voters picked up steam after the collapse of Populism in the aftermath of the 1896 presidential election: Louisiana (1896), North Carolina (1900), Alabama (1901), Virginia (1901-1902), Georgia (1908), and Oklahoma (1910) all removed their African American citizens from the voter rolls by constitutional amendments.  During this same period, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas accomplished the same goal through poll taxes or other methods.  And, in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), the U.S. Supreme Court found the “Mississippi Plan” of 1890 constitutional.

End of Part 1

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Midterm Elections, 1866, 2018: Deja Vu (Sort of)

[NOTE: Followers of this blog know that I usually eschew contemporary politics here, but there have been a few exceptions (for example, here and here).  And, here’s another one.

First, some background.  When I was in History graduate school (1968-1973), the “gold standard” in multi-volume histories of the United States was Harper and Row’s New American Nation Series, edited by Richard Morris and Henry Steele Commager.  I bought most of the volumes in this series in paperback, and several proved very useful while I was working on lectures for my American survey course and preparing for written, comprehensive exams.

Scholarship, research, and interpretations march on, however.  In more recent decades, the crown for up-to-date, scholarly, multi-volume treatment of this nation’s past has been worn by Oxford University Press’s The Oxford History of the United States, whose General Editor is Stanford University’s David M. Kennedy.  The series remains unfinished at this date, but there’s a better than even chance that the remaining chronological gaps will be filled, perhaps before Kennedy retires from the editorship.

I own every volume published by Oxford so far and have read all but the most recent one, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands:  The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1876 (2017), which I have begun this summer.  As I made my way through White’s account of the tumultuous presidency of Andrew Johnson, I was struck by his description of Johnson’s campaign to seize control of Reconstruction from Congress, which was dominated at the time by the so-called “Radical Republicans.”

Why did White’s treatment of the Johnson Presidency prove so captivating to me?  Because his analysis of the overmatched Tennessean’s campaign suggested certain traits of our current President, as he, too, looks ahead to the midterm elections this November.  White’s volume was published in 2017, which means that he might have been influenced in his treatment of President Andrew Johnson by the antics of Donald Trump, at least during the campaign season.  At any rate, certain of White’s points of emphasis strike home, and I think they might also resonate for some of you.]

* * * * *

Andrew Johnson (Wikipedia)

Scene 1:  In February 1866, President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, and Congress narrowly sustained his veto,

but Johnson remained the kind of man who was angry even in victory.  As was the custom, on Washington’s Birthday a crowd gathered before the White House to serenade the president, and Johnson gave an impromptu speech that provided more evidence that he should never give impromptu speeches.  He equated [Thaddeus] Stevens, [Charles] Sumner, and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips with the Confederate leadership.  They were, he said, as bad as traitors since they too aimed to undermine the Constitution.  The president referred to himself 210 times in a speech of little more than an hour, or three times every minute. (66-67)

Scene 2:  When a black delegation led by Frederick Douglass visited Johnson, he

told the delegation that it was poor whites, not blacks who were the real victims of slavery in the South.  After the delegates left, he told his private secretary:  “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap.  I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, & he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” (67)

Scene 3:  White explains that

There was method in Johnson’s madness.  His goal was a coalition of conservatives who would cross party and sectional boundaries to maintain a white man’s republic.  On March 27 Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill as an attack on the rights of white people and as a move to centralize all power in the federal government. . . .

He also indicated that only he could speak for the nation.  Congress spoke for parochial interests. . . . Johnson’s political calculation was that by framing the issue as a dual contest between the rights of whites and the rights of blacks, and between the expansion of the federal government and the preservation of local governments, he could not lose. (67)

Scene 4:  Here’s where the parenthetical “sort of” in the title of this post comes in.  When President Johnson set off on his “swing around the circle” from the East through the Midwest in 1866, in an effort to weaken the hold of Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives,

He ended up delighting his enemies and appalling many of his supporters.  With each stop, the crowds became more hostile, and Johnson grew angrier.  He argued with hecklers, comparing himself to the crucified Christ, and found himself abused in the press. . . . (82)

Clearly, President Andrew Johnson had misjudged the temper of his “base,” unlike our current President (of course, President Johnson did not have access either to Twitter or to Fox News, more’s the pity).

* * * * *

Johnson’s “swing around the circle” in the summer and fall of 1866 turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for him and his vision of Reconstruction.  The results of the 1866 midterms ushered in a “veto-proof,” Radical Republican-dominated Congress, setting the stage for the attempt to impeach the President and remove him from office.  This effort narrowly failed, but for the remainder of his term Johnson was reduced to a little more than a political cipher.

* * * * *

So, is any of this actually relevant to the 2018 mid-term elections this November?

President Trump’s allies and his base are determined to retain control of Congress and strengthen their man’s hold on affairs.  The opposition, both Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans, seems just as focused on capturing at least one house and thereby weakening the President.

Some anti-Trump members of the op-ed “commentariat” are even predicting a “Blue Wave” election result that will reduce the President to a cipher for the remainder of his time in office, as happened to Andrew Johnson, and, who knows, perhaps lead to his impeachment.  (Of course, those editorial voices are the same ones who confidently assured us in 2016 that Trump had no chance to be elected President.  Yikes!)

The current situation suggests that, at a minimum, we should make sure we’re registered to vote, regardless of our party affiliation, and then show up at the polls on election day.  (I know, I know, radical notions both.)  The contest has all the makings of a referendum on Trump and “Trumpism,” as it should, and neither side can afford to become complacent.  It’s also important to keep in mind that history–real, verifiable history–you know, with facts and all–remains the crucial source when deciding for whom to vote, not what your favorite news channel might urge.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, Books, Current Events, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History graduate school, History Teaching, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments