Thursday, June 09, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 9

"The United States government's support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality." So begins the ninth chapter of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States. Slavery was convenient. Ending the system would be difficult for a lot of people who profited from the status quo. The Zinn quotation immediately begs the question of what other morally reprehensible things the U.S. is involved in and complacent about simply because they are overwhelmingly practical. I bet you could come up with a few.

My man Derrick Jensen would have a field day with the "1932 edition of a best-selling textbook by two northern liberal historians [,which] saw slavery as perhaps the Negro's 'necessary transition to civilization.'"

It wasn't just about subjugating members of a different-looking race, either, though I am in no way belittling that rampant American practice. Instead, Zinn offers added nuance: "The slaveholders ... suspected that non-slaveholders would encourage slave disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the blacks as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty. White men sometimes were linked to slave insurrectionary plots, and each such incident rekindled fears," Zinn quotes Eugene Genovese, an American scholar popular in the 1960s and one of the first to read widely through a Marxist lens. In other words, class warfare among whites may have played a role. It is said that people with ultimate power have nothing to fear except losing that power, so many of them focus all their efforts on maintaining control, even to the point of paranoia (and, of course, immorality).

The meat of this chapter is a history of the end of slavery and some of the beginning of Reconstruction. Below is a timeline I compiled from the text, followed by a few quotations that floored me (there are more in the chapter, which is a really good one) and then a summary of political life after the war.
  • 1802 - Report is made to the governer of Virginia about a plot of three whites conspiring to help black slaves
  • 1808 - Importing slaves to the U.S. becomes illegal
  • 1822 - Denmark Vesey, a free black man, conspires to burn Charleston, SC but is captured and hanged; the trial publication was "ordered destroyed" soon after because it was deemed "too dangerous for slaves to see"
  • 1831 - Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia
  • 1838 - Frederick Douglass escapes to the North
  • 1841 - slaves being illegally transported on the ship Creole mutinied and went to the West Indies, from where the British refused to extradite (most of) them 
  • 1849 - Congressman Lincoln recommends a resolution to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, accompanying it with a section requiring local authorities to arrest and return fugitive slaves coming into DC
  • 1850 - Fugitive Slave Act is passed 
  • 1853 - Sojourner Truth, a black woman, speaks at the 4th national Woman's Rights Convention
  • 1857 - U.S. Supreme Court declares that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was property and not a person
  • 1859 - John Brown is executed by the State of Virginia 
  • 1861 - Lincoln's first Presidential Inaugural Address includes: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
  • 1863 - Emancipation Proclamation, about which "London Spectator wrote concisely: 'The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.'" 
  • June, 1864 - Congress passes a law granting equal pay to Negro soldiers (presumably those fighting for the Union army)
  • March, 1865 - President Davis of the Confederacy signs Negro Soldier Law, "authorizing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers, to be freed by consent of their owners and their state governments. But before it had any significant effect, the war was over."
  • December, 1865 - Thirteenth Amendment passed and adopted
  • 1875 - Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination against blacks using public facilities
  • 1877 - the very close Presidential election reaches a Compromise; US is in a huge economic depression and those in power let the South revert to more racist measures, "assur[ing] the dominant whites political autonomy and non-intervention in matters of race policy and promised them a share in the blessings of the new economic order" (Zinn quoting Woodward)
  • 1883 - the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is nullified by the Supreme Court, which says: "Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the [Fourteenth] amendment." Of important note, "A remarkable dissent was written by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, himself a former slaveowner in Kentucky, who said there was Constitutional justification for banning private discrimination. He noted that the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery, applied to individual plantation owners, not just the state. He then argued that discrimination was a badge of slavery and similarly outlawable. He pointed also to the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, and to the clause in Article 4, Section 2, saying 'the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.'" 
  • 1896 - Plessy v. Ferguson - the Court rules that a railroad can segregate black and white if the segregated facilities are equal
 Quotable Quotes:
  • "It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery." ~ Frederick Douglass
  • "Dear Sir: ... I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. .. . My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. . .. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free. Yours. A. Lincoln." ~ from a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in 1862
After the war, things were very murky for freed slaves. How they lived depended on where they lived, how the (white) people around them felt, whether they had access to land, etc. Racism ran rampant in the North and the South, as it continues today.

"Ex-slave Thomas Hall told the Federal Writers' Project: 'Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He gave us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us out of necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery.'"

On the other hand, blacks began to vote, to hold property, to start their own churches, and to otherwise enjoy independence of thought and deed. President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, did all he could to stop this progress, but the 14th, 15th, and subsequent Amendments were eventually passed. Over 150 years later, there is still a ways to go.

"As black children went to school, they were encouraged by teachers, black and white, to express themselves freely, sometimes in catechism style. The records of a school in Louisville, Kentucky:
TEACHER: Now children, you don't think white people are any better than you because they have straight hair and white faces?
STUDENTS: No, sir.
TEACHER: No, they are no better, but they are different, they possess great power, they formed this great government, they control this vast country. . . . Now what makes them different from you?
TEACHER: Yes, but what enabled them to obtain it? How did they get money?
STUDENTS: Got it off us, stole it off we all! 

Zinn summarizes the big picture in a compelling way: "The American government had set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain the enormous national territory and market and resources. Yet, victory required a crusade, and the momentum of that crusade brought new forces into national politics: more blacks determined to make their freedom mean something; more whites-whether Freedman's Bureau officials, or teachers in the Sea Islands, or "carpetbaggers" with various mixtures of humanitarianism and personal ambition-concerned with racial equality. There was also the powerful interest of the Republican party in maintaining control over the national government, with the prospect of southern black votes to accomplish this. Northern businessmen, seeing Republican policies as beneficial to them, went along for a while."

Power changed hands, and to maintain its power, "[t]he southern white oligarchy used its economic power to organize the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. Northern politicians began to weigh the advantage of the political support of impoverished blacks-maintained in voting and office only by force-against the more stable situation of a South returned to white supremacy, accepting Republican dominance and business legislation. It was only a matter of time before blacks would be reduced once again to conditions not far from slavery."

As posited in the beginning of the chapter, indeed, it was amoral power lust and not [only] racism that drove the rich and powerful: "The importance of the new capitalism in overturning what black power existed in the postwar South is affirmed by Horace Mann Bond's study of Alabama Reconstruction, which shows, after 1868, 'a struggle between different financiers.'" Yes, racism was a factor but "accumulations of capital, and the men who controlled them, were as unaffected by attitudinal prejudices as it is possible to be. Without sentiment, without emotion, those who sought profit from an exploitation of Alabama's natural resources turned other men's prejudices and attitudes to their own account, and did so with skill and a ruthless acumen." In the South, blacks were brutalized, and in the North, they were an extremely cheap and marginalized, dehumanized source of labor. Racism only helped make this subjugation easier to institutionalize, to hegemonize, to swallow.

Blacks in the United States have endured a history of cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity. Their history and struggles cannot and should not be belittled, besmirched, or forgotten. That said, blacks were not the only ones re-enslaved during Reconstruction. Even after emancipation, the same tactics of subjugation and dehumanization were used to rebuild U.S. "civilization" after the war. I'll end with the last three paragraphs of Zinn's chapter, much of it from W.E.B. Dubois:

"Du Bois saw this new capitalism as part of a process of exploitation and bribery taking place in all the 'civilized' countries of the world:

"'Home labor in cultured lands, appeased and misled by a ballot whose power the dictatorship of vast capital strictly curtailed, was bribed by high wage and political office to unite in an exploitation of white, yellow, brown and black labor, in lesser lands...'"

It's no hyperbole - Zinn is right to ask, "Was Du Bois right-that in that growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?"

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