Wednesday, January 02, 2008

White man's land

-- by Dave

There was a noteworthy piece the other day in the New York Times about threats being made against the NAACP -- in Maine, of all places:
In October, the N.A.A.C.P. chapter for northern Maine got shocking news. A man from a nearby town had threatened to shoot “any and all black persons” attending the group’s meetings at an old stone church here, and state prosecutors were worried enough to seek a restraining order.

Such remarks are not unheard of in Maine, the nation’s whitest state, which has fewer black residents — 10,918 in 2006, or less than 1 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau — than some neighborhoods of Chicago or New York. But nor are they usually so blunt. The chapter has since held meetings at police stations and canceled its annual Kwanzaa celebration, which normally draws people from up and down the coast of Maine.

“It’s discouraging and it’s heart-wrenching,” said Joseph Perry, president of the chapter, which has 175 members from Augusta to the Canadian border. “There are still people who aren’t comfortable, who don’t feel safe.”

The man who made the threat was Kendrick Sawyer, 75, whose doctor at a veterans hospital in Augusta reported it to the police. Mr. Sawyer also said that Maine “should be a ‘white’ state,” according to court documents, and that he owned a .45-caliber handgun. No criminal charges have been filed, but law enforcement officers removed the gun from Mr. Sawyer’s home in Brewer, across a river from Bangor, and the Maine attorney general’s office filed a civil complaint against him.

“This man’s threat was shocking in its specificity and the anger it contained,” said Thomas Harnett, the assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement. “It’s not often you see something articulated so clearly and so filled with acknowledged prejudice.”

Still, Mr. Harnett said his office received 250 to 300 reports of bias incidents every year from around the state, most of them racially motivated.

Many come from Lewiston, where more than 3,000 Somali immigrants have settled in recent years. In July 2006, a group of Somalis were worshiping in a storefront mosque there when a white man rolled the head of a pig, an animal considered unclean in Islam, across the floor. And last month, a Somali student at Lewiston High School said, a white man threw sand and dirt in his face as he ran at a cross-country meet.

Last year, a white man shouted racial slurs at a pregnant black woman in Hancock, near Bangor, and kicked her in the abdomen, according to Mr. Harnett’s office. And in March, Assata Sherrill, a black resident of Bangor, told the police that three white boys had thrown stones and shouted racial epithets at her as she walked her dog near the city’s waterfront.

Much of the rest of the country is fond of believing that racism is primarily a creature of the South -- a legacy of the Civil Rights era, when the fight focused on ending the system of Jim Crow laws and segregation. The North, by contrast, was relatively unscathed in much of this fight, particularly when it came to school desegration: their school districts faced no such issues because blacks weren't allowed to live within their communities in the first place.

They had all been driven out during the era of "sundown towns," or what James Loewen, the author of the best study of the phenomenon to date, calls "the Nadir" of race relations in America -- a period in which, after the migration of African Americans into their communities following the Civil War, rural and suburban towns undertook an "ethnic cleansing" of sorts, creating a system of residential segregation (with blacks clustered into poorer urban centers) that persists to this day.

As Loewen's book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism explores in some detail, the vast majority of these towns were in the Midwest and Northeast, as well as a substantial portion in the West; the South, which preferred its system of Jim Crow oppression, had comparatively few (with some notable exceptions, such as Georgia's Forsyth County).

Loewen lays this out in a chart that shows marked declines in black populations in a number of counties in states ranging from California to Wisconsin to New Hampshire. And then there was Maine:
...[I]n 1890, every county in the state of Maine had at least eighteen African Americans, except one with just two and another with nine. By 1930, Maine looked very different. Now five counties had eight or fewer African Americans. Several showed striking drops in their black populations: Lincoln County from 26 to 5, for example, and Piscataquis from 19 to 1. Hancock County dropped from 56 in 1890 to just 3, yet Hancock had more than 30,000 people in 1930. Geography does not seem to account for these declines; the counties with fewer than eight African Americans were sprinkled about, not concentrated in Maine's isolated in rural north. [p.57]

As Loewen notes, none of these were "natural" declines -- "something else was happening." That "something" was the determination of whites that African Americans were "the problem" and they needed to be driven out to keep "white culture" safe.
Moreover, beginning in about 1915, African Americans from Dixie started moving north in large numbers, a movement now known as the "Great Migration," in reponse to the impact of World War I, which simultaneously increased the demand for American products abroad and interfered with European migration to northern cities. More than 1,000,000 African Americans moved north between 1915 and 1930. Thus the absolute declines in black population by 1930 in many northern counties are all the more staggering. Without a retreat to the cities, these increases in overall black populations would have caused the number of counties with zero or few blacks to plummet.

Loewen notes a 1915 editorial from the local paper in Beloit, Wisconsin, as fairly representative of the broad sentiments at play:
The Negro problem has moved north. Rather, the Negro problem has spread from south to north. ... Within a few years, experts predict the Negro population of the North will be tripled. It's your problem, or it will be when the Negro moves next door. ... With the black tide setting north, the southern Negro, formerly a docile tool, is demanding better pay, better food, and better treatment. ... It's a national problem now, instead of a sectional problem. And it has got to be solved.

One of the ways this desire to protect all things white expressed itself was through the formation of Ku Klux Klan chapters during its second incarnation in the 1915-1930 period. This later Klan, as many today conveniently forget, was a nationwide organization that briefly became a political powerhouse in a number of states, including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Oregon ... as well as Maine.

David Chalmers describes this in his book Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan:
The first Maine unit of the Klan was in Bangor, but its largest Klavern and its home and its heart came to reside in Portland, where Eugene Farnsworth set up headquarters in a $60,000 estate out on Forest Avenue. The Klan emerged in the public eye and the political arena when it threw its support on the side of municipal reform in Portland and helped -- though some said hindered -- the adoption of a city-manager form of government. Being on the winning side meant not only permission to demonstrate against the Knights of Columbus on Columbus Day, and a membership which grew to an estimated 2700 in Portland, but also enlarged prestige throughout the state. In the spring elections of 1923, Klan-endorsed tickets, headed by "one-hundred-percent Americans" broke the traditional Democratic hold on the towns of Sacco and Rockland. In many parts of Maine, townsmen who had always skeptically opposed the increased levies requested by the school boards, eagerly laid out the money to protect the little red schoolhouses of America through joining the Klan.

Although Klan strength probably never reached much beyond the fifteen-thousand mark, this meant, with the votes of the Klansmen's wives included, control of more than one out of every ten votes likely to be case. The very secrecy of the Klan made it possible power seem even greater, and concentrated as it was within the dominant Republican Party, it meant that the Invisible Empire might well hold the power to pick the eventually successful candidates.

As Chalmers goes on to describe in some detail, this is what happened in 1924, when the Klan played a critical role in the election of Owen Brewster to the governorship.

But of course, it wasn't just in Maine. This was a national phenomenon. That same year, the Klan made waves at the Democratic Convention when the Klan-backed candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo of Georgia, declined to denounce them. Al Smith of New York managed to block his nomination, largely on these grounds, and West Virginia's John Davis emerged as the compromise selection. He lost to Calvin Coolidge.

This is the legacy we live with today, because the beliefs that fed these movements are very much still with us. What's happening in Maine is happening in many other places as well -- though the hues of non-white may vary, the impulse to "defend white culture" by excluding and eliminating all others is alive and well in America. Just ask an "illegal alien."

As Joseph Perry, the NAACP director in Maine cited in the NYT piece, put it:
“Something like this pops up,” he said, “and you realize you have a longer way to go. You can’t just say it was one of those crazy things that will never happen again.”

Sadly, this is true not just for Maine, but for all of us.

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