|Some of the faces at the Woolworth's lunch-counter sit-in,|
May 28, 1963, Jackson, Miss.
It's one of the great historic puzzles: How was it that poor Southern whites, who had the most to lose by seceding from the Union and declaring war against the North, came to agree to do such a thing?
The question survives today: How is that the white Southern working class, which has been rendered economically bereft by its deep embrace of conservatism, its rejection of unionism, and the cultural backwardness of which its citizens are aggressively proud, can continue to support a politics that makes their lives miserable?
Lyndon Baines Johnson knew the answer to that, according to Bill Moyers, who recalls that LBJ told him, in 1960: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
Indeed, the pattern for this was established at the very genesis of the Confederacy, when Southern society remained highly stratified -- an elite "1 percent" society of plantation owners and slaveholders, a large white working underclass, and the black slave class, all walled off from the other. The Confederacy was the brainchild of the elite plantation/slave owners, who were determined to maintain their privileged status quo; but its monstrous offspring, the Civil War, would be fed by the bodies and lives of millions of working-class Southerners who received only a handful of direct benefits from the institution of slavery, few of them economic.
The critical question that gave the Confederacy its limited legitimacy was the extent to which the latter were willing to lay down their lives for the former. And how was that made possible?
Jonna Ivin at the journal Stir expounded on this at length recently, while pondering the nature of Donald Trump voters:
The answer, as Ivin explains, is actually fairly simple: "Religious and political leaders began using a combination of fear, sex, and God to paint a chilling picture of freed angry Black men ravaging the South."
As slavery expanded in the South and indentured servitude declined, the wealthy elite offered poor whites the earliest version of the American Dream: if they worked hard enough, they could achieve prosperity, success, and upward social mobility — if not for themselves, then perhaps for future generations.
But few realized that dream. In “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy,” the Rev. Dr. Thandeka notes:
Not surprisingly, however, poor whites never became the economic equals of the elite. Though both groups’ economic status rose, the gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus, poor whites’ belief that they now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.
With whites and Blacks divided, the wealthy elite prospered enormously for the next two hundred years while poor whites remained locked in poverty. With the potential election of Abraham Lincoln, however, the upper class began to worry they would lose their most valuable commodity: slave labor. The numbers were not on their side — not the financial numbers, but the number of bodies it would take to wage war should Lincoln try to abolish slavery. And it was white male bodies they needed. (Poor women were of little value to the rich, since they couldn’t vote or fight in a war.) So how did wealthy plantation owners convince poor white males to fight for a “peculiar institution” that did not benefit them?
Historian Gordon Rhea explored all this in great detail in a 2011 address to the Charleston Historical Society:
As Southerners became increasingly isolated, they reacted by becoming more strident in defending slavery. The institution was not just a necessary evil: it was a positive good, a practical and moral necessity. Controlling the slave population was a matter of concern for all Whites, whether they owned slaves or not. Curfews governed the movement of slaves at night, and vigilante committees patrolled the roads, dispensing summary justice to wayward slaves and whites suspected of harboring abolitionist views. Laws were passed against the dissemination of abolitionist literature, and the South increasingly resembled a police state. A prominent Charleston lawyer described the city’s citizens as living under a “reign of terror.”
The primary, and perhaps most important, of the institutions in which working-class whites were propagandized into supporting the cause of the slaveholders was in the churches, where preachers constantly extolled the virtues of slavery and the dangers of a society without it:
Of course, Southern politicians got into the act, making defense of slavery both a patriotic and a cultural value:
Reverend Richard Furman of South Carolina insisted that the right to hold slaves was clearly sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures. He emphasized a practical side as well, warning that if Lincoln were elected, “every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”
Rev. Richard Furman
A fellow reverend from Virginia agreed that on no other subject “are [the Bible’s] instructions more explicit, or their salutary tendency and influence more thoroughly tested and corroborated by experience than on the subject of slavery.” The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, asserted that slavery “has received the sanction of Jehova.” As a South Carolina Presbyterian concluded: “If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify.”
The Biblical argument started with Noah’s curse on Ham, the father of Canaan, which was used to demonstrate that God had ordained slavery and had expressly applied it to Blacks. Commonly cited were passages in Leviticus that authorized the buying, selling, holding and bequeathing of slaves as property. Methodist Samuel Dunwody from South Carolina documented that Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Job owned slaves, arguing that “some of the most eminent of the Old Testament saints were slave holders.” The Methodist Quarterly Review noted further that “the teachings of the new testament in regard to bodily servitude accord with the old.” While slavery was not expressly sanctioned in the New Testament, Southern clergymen argued that the absence of condemnation signified approval. They cited Paul’s return of a runaway slave to his master as Biblical authority for the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves.
... During the 1850’s, pro-slavery arguments from the pulpit became especially strident. A preacher in Richmond exalted slavery as “the most blessed and beautiful form of social government known; the only one that solves the problem, how rich and poor may dwell together; a beneficent patriarchate.” The Central Presbyterian affirmed that slavery was “a relation essential to the existence of civilized society.” By 1860, Southern preachers felt comfortable advising their parishioners that “both Christianity and Slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time.”
William Harris, Mississippi’s commissioner to Georgia, explained that Lincoln’s election had made the North more defiant than ever. “They have demanded, and now demand equality between the white and negro races, under our constitution; equality in representation, equality in right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony,” he cautioned, adding that the new administration wanted “freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and me.”
As Harris saw things, “Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.” Lincoln and his followers, he stated, aimed to “overturn and strike down this great feature of our union and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” For Harris, the choice was clear. Mississippi would “rather see the last of her race, men, women, and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjugated to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.” The Georgia legislature ordered the printing of a thousand copies of his speech.
Typical of the commissioner letters is that written by Stephen Hale, an Alabama commissioner, to the Governor of Kentucky, in December 1860. Lincoln’s election, he observed, was “nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the south, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. The slave holder and non-slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting all the resources of the country.”
What Southerner, Hale asked, “can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality?” Abolition would surely mean that “the two races would be continually pressing together,” and “amalgamation or the extermination of the one or the other would be inevitable.” Secession, argued Hale, was the only means by which the “heaven ordained superiority of the white over the black race” could be sustained. The abolition of slavery would either plunge the South into a race war or so stain the blood of the white race that it would be contaminated for all time.” Could southern men “submit to such degradation and ruin,” he asked, and responded to his own question, “God forbid that they should.”
The black rape scene from 'The Birth of a Nation'
Typical also was the message from Henry Benning of Georgia – later one of General Lee’s most talented brigade commanders – to the Virginia legislature. “If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished,” he predicted. “By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case.”
What did Benning predict would happen? “War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth. We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. We will be completely exterminated,” he announced, “and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or Saint Domingo.”
Finally, of course, community leaders fell into line in promoting this line of thought:
More to the point, he noted, abolition meant “the turning loose upon society, without the salutary restraints to which they are now accustomed, more than four millions of a very poor and ignorant population, to ramble in idleness over the country until their wants should drive most of them, first to petty thefts, and afterwards to the bolder crimes of robbery and murder.” The planter and his family would “not only to be reduced to poverty and want, by the robbery of his property, but to complete the refinement of the indignity, they are to be degraded to the level of an inferior race, be jostled by them in their paths, and intruded upon, and insulted over by rude and vulgar upstarts. Who can describe the loathsomeness of such an intercourse;—the constrained intercourse between refinement reduced to poverty, and swaggering vulgarity suddenly elevated to a position which it is not prepared for?”
Non-slaveholders, he predicted, were also in danger. “It will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges,” he cautioned. “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro,” he reminded his readers. “In the Southern slaveholding States, where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.”
Ivin also explores this in some detail:
Wealthy plantation owners had succeeded in separating the two races, and they now planted a fear of Blacks in the minds of poor and working white men. Enslaved Blacks were an asset to the wealthy, but freed Blacks were portrayed as a danger to all. By creating this common enemy among rich and poor alike, the wealthy elite sent a clear message: fight with us against abolitionists and you will remain safe.
It worked. Poor and working class whites signed up by the hundreds of thousands to fight for what they believed was their way of life. Meanwhile, many of the wealthy planters who benefitted economically from slavery were granted exemptions from military service and avoided the horrors of battle. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, wealthy elites were allowed to pay other men to take their place on the bloody battlefields. As the war lingered on, poor whites in the North and South began to realize the rich had waged the war, but it was the poor who were dying in it.
... With more than 650,000 deaths, the end of the Civil War eventually brought freedom for African-Americans. But after the war, ex-slaves were left to linger and die in a world created by those in the North who no longer cared and those in the South who now resented their existence. Poor whites didn’t fare much better. Without land, property, or hope for economic gains, many freed Blacks and returning white soldiers turned to sharecropping and found themselves once again working side by side, dependent on wealthy landowners.
Ivin also makes clear that this has profound relevance today, because these same poor whites are the meat of Donald Trump's proto-fascist army:
Confederate Heritage Month:
Trump supporters believe he’s different. They believe that he cares about us, that he tells it like it is, that he gives us a voice, that he can’t be bought because he’s already rich, that he’s railing against politics as usual.
But does Trump care about the white underclass, or does he still think poor people are “morons”?
Did slave owners care about white indentured servants when they pitted them against African slaves, or did they want to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor? Did Ronald Reagan care about poor white people when he trotted out the fictional welfare queen, or did he need a budget item to cut? Do wealthy elites and politicians care about poor and middle class people when they send them off to war, or are they anticipating massive profits?
Trump is railing against establishment politics not because he cares about the white underclass, but because he needs us — for now. He isn’t reaching out a hand to lift us up. He wants to stand on our shoulders so we can lift him up.
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution