By W. D. Smither
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” (Frederick Douglass, Statesman, Abolitionist, Social Reformer, Former Slave)
I’ve often imagined how difficult it must be for foreigners to understand the American psyche, based on our behavior- the social, cultural and racial attitudes– the world has observed, since explorers first reached our shores; and, it’s been unfolding since long before Christopher Columbus—and, long after our Declaration of Independence where we claimed, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Wow! What a scary affirmation, in view of the flip side of the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioning De Jure (by law) Segregation (1896) and the long list of moral hypocrisies that often trailed in its wake, including the despicable Ku Klux Klan-recruiting flick, “Birth of a Nation” (released in 1915), which, in my opinion, simply glorified the ugly side of America’s two-sided coin of justice.
Where the so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” (13th, 14th and 15th Amendments) to the U.S. Constitution were supposed to guarantee freedom from slavery and civil rights discrimination to all citizens, the sickening drip and creative creep of legalized, white supremacy racism like “Slave Codes,” “Black Codes,” Jim Crow Laws, lynching and segregation simply mocked the whole idea of transforming our nation from being “half slave and half free.”
The way I saw it, it further mocked the words we all used to recite each day when I was growing up, just before the morning school bell rung in the segregated, three-room school house I attended, in Kentucky. They were: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Afterwards, even at an early age, I always privately punctuated my thoughts: “Imagine that, One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all…?”
Today, this resurging creep of voter obstruction laws, across our nation, are simply the new racist dibs on old “poll tax” schemes by backroom politicians, similar to the old “White Citizens Councils” within their closet-connections to pea-brain Klansmen, now hiding behind fancy suits, snazzy ties and political sovereignty, rather than the 150-thread-count cotton or burlap-sheets they used to wear.
As a child, growing up in the South during the waning years of “Old Jim Crow” and the waxing months of school desegregation, I first began to wonder about our moral and ethical landscapes, listening to many kitchen-table stories about my mixed-race paternal grandparents needing to sit in different railroad cars, when traveling from Ohio to Kentucky to visit us—on the same train.
My granddad, a mulatto (half white, half black), was of Scotch-Irish descent. Some say that he certainly could have “passed for white,” but didn’t. My grandmother was of African-American and Native American ancestry (Cherokee, according to family stories). To the Jim Crow South, she was “obviously black.” But, to me, they were just “Big Momma and Big Daddy from the city (Dayton, Ohio),” not my maternal grandparents “from the country (Zanesville, Ohio),” where I spent most summers on the farm. What I recalled most about my paternal “Big Daddy” was his shiny-black 1939 Ford Coupe, and the “rumble seat” I used to ride in, not the railroad car situation.
I often traveled on that same old Frankfort-to-Cincinnati, steam-powered “Choo Choo” train, which provided many life memories, including cold chicken-and-biscuit shoe-box lunches, and other life-time survival tools or lessons along the way. Yet, I never associated America’s railroad system with the Civil Rights struggle, until I learned of the famous U.S. Supreme Court Case, Plessy v Ferguson (163 U.S 537, 1896), later in life.
From my independent studies in history, I recall that Homer Adolph Plessy was of Creole descent (often mixed-racial groups born in Louisiana, sharing French, Spanish and/or African ancestry). He was of “fair-complexion” and, according to New Orleans public records, had worked as a shoemaker, laborer, clerk and insurance agent; and, by 1887, he was serving as vice-president of a New Orleans social group whose aim was to reform public education.
According to Louisiana Law, Plessy was born a free man and classified as “black.” Racial-segmentation terms of the day, defined him as an “octoroon,” or someone with 7/8 Caucasian blood and 1/8 African blood. That meant “black” in Jim Crow-speak and Louisiana legalese. And, according to Louisiana’s 2-year old “Separate Car Act” (Louisiana State Legislature, Act #111, 1890), blacks and whites had to travel in separate—“equal, but separate”– accommodations on railroads, or separate railway cars, with blacks sitting in the “Colored” car.
But, a group of prominent, mixed-race citizens, dedicated to repealing the law, persuaded Plessy to help form a test case. And, in the summer of 1892, Plessy was arrested after purchasing a first class train ticket and boarding the “whites only,” Eastern Louisiana Railroad car, to travel from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. After sitting down, Plessy was asked to sit in the “blacks only” car, but refused. He was taken off the train by a detective, charged for violating the state law and remanded for trial.
Plessy’s lawyers argued (Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana) that the state law denied him his rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution. But, the judge in the case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that it was in Louisiana’s right to regulate railroad companies when operating in Louisiana. Plessy was convicted and fined (on appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, Judge Ferguson’s ruling was upheld and the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896; oral arguments were held before the court on April 13, 1896).
It was here, as if by the wave of some magic wand, that segregation became the law of the land, erasing any legislative gains from the Reconstruction Era. Here, the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine was born. However, the Jim Crow Laws that followed simply guaranteed that white public facilities and educational institutions would always be superior to the lowly, inferior facilities and institutions provided for black people. This racialized silliness formed the heart and soul of America’s ugly treatment of its non-white citizenry until it was overturned by the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
In my opinion, that’s how far back you’d have to go, in order to even begin to understand the American psyche and behavioral history, and its latent connection to our complex social, cultural and racial attitudes of today. It’s only part of why a significant portion of our country’s citizenry persistently show an open, unreasonable and hateful attitude toward this nation’s so-called “first black president,” President Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th and currently elected President of the United States of America—the oft stated Leader of the Western World. And, the drum beat of ignorance continues against, arguably, the “most powerful man in the world.” Perhaps, that is the reasoning behind the steady stream of racist comments, persistent lies and distortions, directed at the president and his family.
It’s what happens when this vile seepage from the bowels of legal segregation contaminates the nation’s body politic, oozing onto the landscapes of diseased minds, like Jim Crow laws that strategically erased black gains in voting, in the wake of Reconstruction’s political successes. Historical archives show that white lawmakers often admitted and boasted that complex voter-registration rules and “…literacy tests, poll taxes, white primaries, and grandfather clauses were designed to produce an electorate confined to a white race that declared itself supreme,” effectively nullifying the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution.
This lingering legacy of segregation is an integral component of the mindset behind new voter registration requirements and/or voter-ID laws, today. And, the bogus explanations, surrounding the need for them, remains the sham they’ve always been, within the political shenanigans of the Southern strategy that they will always be, in my opinion.
Yet, for me, it doesn’t matter if this so-called Southern strategy is fable or fact. It’s more important for us to remember that there’s a different, progressive side of American politic which remains rooted in the richness of diversity, fairness and equal opportunity. In my opinion, it’s the bedrock of America’s soul; and, it seems to be growing in geometric proportions, as the weaving in our nation’s multicultural quilt spins off new patterns and designs. Like cotton fiber buried within the quilts, the binding threads which strengthen America’s cultural patchwork stems from the unique diversity and talents of its people. And, I’ve witnessed this many times in athletics and the military, as well as where I grew up on the cusp of a more progressive South.
As a child, I never had a problem with “hand-me-down” clothes. We were blessed to have a steady supply from various sources. As an adult, after receiving gently-worn “hand-me-downs” for our own children, we were blessed to be able to do the same for others. Now, I see our kids, with children of their own, continue the tradition with others.
But, the “hand-me-down” bigotry of our nation is another matter. And, I’ve vigorously rejected it wherever it oozes to the surface. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans reject the idea, as well. But, for foreigners or visitors to our shores to better understand our social, cultural and racial attitudes, they should first understand the genetic codes of our national DNA. It’s a profound mix of ingrained attitudes, from protest and dissent or love and hate, to ignorance and/or understanding. Yet, it’s a mixed bag of proud patriotism, which often confuses those individuals residing outside the physical and mental boundaries of the Continental United States.
Certain public opinion poll results, in the United States further drive home this point. For example, a recently released Gallup Poll shows that 52% of black Americans feel that new civil rights laws are still needed in America, compared to only 15% of whites feeling this way; and, 59% of blacks believe “that government should play a major role in improving the social and economic position of Blacks, while 19% of Whites agree” (“Minority News,” Black Radio Network, February 4, 2014). The polling summarized that, “These differences suggest that to some degree the separate but equal societies continue to exist in this country — at least as far as views of the government’s role in addressing civil rights issues are concerned.”
Ties that Bind?
Certainly, for many observers, things have changed greatly—or, not much at all—depending on which side of the scale of racial justice one sits, ever since Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. scribbled out his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” According to archives, he did this in the margins of an unnamed newspaper on April 16, 1963, as he argued the merits of entrenched racism, saying, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In response to the critical white power structure which questioned and complained about his “illegal” non-violent-protest tactics, he also reminded them that the celebrated Boston Tea Party protest of December 1773, which led to the American Revolution, was an “illegal” civil disobedience. To those who were saying “wait,” he cautioned, “this ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never,’” noting that blacks had waited for these God-given rights long enough, citing the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who once said, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Yes, even then, there was a strategic difference in the moral and ethical interpretations of right vs. wrong between black and white citizens, stemming from different life experiences and frames of reference. And, I’ve always felt that these attitudes extended to the different interpretations of the same Holy Bible. But, you’ll have to consult black theologians and other black religious leaders to understand why.
Although raised in Christian households, I’m no theologian. While I’ve seen a lot, it’s far beyond my ability to properly explain, this complex reality of competing racial and religious attitudes which forms the nuts-and-bolts of our social, cultural and racial divide in America. Yet, I reverently claim the Pledge of Allegiance, still today, as proudly as I do the Honorable Military Discharge that I possess.
Surely, based on our range of complex interrelationships, we certainly do get along—that is, overall. There are many ties that bind us, as the Christian hymn suggests: “Blest be the tie that binds… Our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds… Is like to that above…”
You would think, perhaps, that the election of an African-American President is an undeniably positive aspect of life in the United States. Yet, it seems not, just based on the congressional gridlock we see, today. Politics aside, America’s cultural DNA is complex, pure and simple. But, the history of our shared struggles– our civil protests, our wars, our battles and inner conflicts– suggest that we can, and often do, unite across many miles and mindsets.
Besides, the way I see it, the values which unite us are much stronger than the pea-brain rhetoric which dividesus and scars our collective soul. Race and ethnicity is simply the darndest, most difficult clash of them all.
(Backstreet Djeli w.d.s.)