Sunday, October 20, 2013

From Ben Tillman to the Tea Party

The Tea Party are an odd bunch, with their three-cornered hats and Revolutionary War flags, and their -- to me at least -- strange approach to politics.  Where do these people come from?

For a long time I assumed they were getting their political ideas, and possibly their practices, from the American Revolution.  Then one day I stumbled across a book that my daughter had read in graduate school:  Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, by Stephen Kantrowitz (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).  It's about something I've never paid much attention to -- the South after the Civil War.

This is where the Tea Party comes from.  I don't know anybody who enjoys studying American history from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Progressive movement.  But the industrial revolution in the North and the rise of Jim Crow in the South go a long way toward defining where we are today.

I've been particularly averse to Southern history in this period, mainly because I find it so depressing.  But we need to know.  How did they do it?  How did a defeated group of states get up off the floor and largely replicate their former way of life?

The short answer is, by not being Japanese.  When General MacArthur showed up to run Japan at the end of World War II, the Japanese more or less said, Well, they won the war, so I guess we need to do what this MacArthur guy says.  And they did.

Before the war, the South was basically owned and run by its planter elite.  Today we would call them the one percent.  They were a small minority sitting atop two populations, one black and enslaved, the other white and at least notionally free.

At the end of the Civil War, the "wealth and intelligence" of the South, as they were sometimes called, faced the very real prospect of becoming a displaced elite.  The Union army occupied their land, and the blacks -- no longer slaves -- moved rapidly to claim economic and political power.

The Southern elite said, We liked it better the way it was.  This was particularly true when it came to the subject of blacks in politics.  As Ben Tillman put it, whites had a "God-given right to rule where any considerable number of his people sojourn among the colored races." 

And so, like the Bourbons of old, who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing (despite many teachable moments during the French Revolution), the wealth and wisdom of the South launched a counter-revolution.

Let's have a closer look at this Southern counter-revolution -- put it under the microscope, if you will.  Let's go to South Carolina, to the little county of Edgefield.  This is Ben Tillman's home.

Tillman served as governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and then moved to the United States Senate, where he served until his death in 1918.  But before all that he was a thug.  A rich thug.  His family was one of the largest land-owners in Edgefield County.

His career in politics and terror started shortly after the end of the Civil War.  With other members of the county gentry, he rallied the white people of Edgefield to defend hearth and homeland against blacks and the federal government.  In this xenophobic world view, hatred of blacks and the federal government were intimately intertwined.  They were the two faces of the hated Other.  As long as the North pursued actual reconstruction in the South, Tillman said that white Southerners would have "no conception of the word 'nation' except that it is connected with the word 'nigger.'" 

The rhetoric of this movement -- and particularly Tillman's rhetoric -- was violent, irrational, and fact challenged.  Discourse with opponents was loud, inarticulate, and deaf.  Armed counter-revolutionaries would show up at their opponents' political meetings and demand that the meeting "divide time" between Reconstructionist speakers and anti-Reconstructionists.  They would then proceed to "holler down" the Reconstructionists and use their fists to break up the meeting.

This kind of behavior carried over to election day, when black would-be voters faced an increasingly hostile and volatile atmosphere at the polls.  And, as reactionary whites regained control of the electoral apparatus, those blacks who did succeed in voting could not trust that their ballots would be counted.

Suppression of the black vote was particularly important in South Carolina because blacks were actually the majority of the population.  (In the 1860 census, South Carolina and Mississippi were the only two states with black majorities.  They were also the first two to secede.)  If all the whites in South Carolina were to vote for one candidate, and all the blacks were to vote for another, the candidate of the blacks would win.  So shenanigans with the ballot box were not optional.

And violence was ever at the ready.  Even those, like me, who have never seen the movie Birth of a Nation have probably seen clips of D.W. Griffith's night riders in their white gowns and conical hats.  And of course their masks.  But the Ku Klux Klan was only one source of violence.  In South Carolina, groups called "rifle clubs" were particularly important.  These were armed units of mounted men who acted bare-faced and in daylight.

The violence escalated over the years, climaxing with the election of 1876, after which Reconstruction came to an end.  In July the rifle clubs earned their place in the history books with the Hamburg massacre; they engaged in a one-sided firefight with a negro militia unit (the rifle clubs had a cannon), and then massacred many of the survivors.  Tillman was there with the Sweetwater Sabre Club.

As Ben Tillman later put it, "In 1876 we shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes."

The 1876 election in South Carolina was critical to the outcome of that year's presidential race.  As a result of the Compromise of 1877, which put Rutherford Hayes in the White House, federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and Reconstruction came to an end.

And the counter-revolution continued.  The erection of Jim Crow took a while, but with the new Constitution that South Carolina adopted in 1895, the most important pieces were in place.  The new Constitution used property qualifications and literacy tests to deny the vote to most blacks, and to many poor whites.  Tillman was chair of the constitutional convention's committee on suffrage.

After a very long run, Jim Crow finally came to a close, but the Southern way of politics -- particularly the South Carolina way of politics -- didn't die.  Instead, with a little help from Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, it went national by joining the Republican party.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina helped lead the Dixiecrat breakaway from the Democratic party, which had adopted a pro-civil rights plank in its platform that year.   In 1964, Senator Thurmond became a Republican.  His father was Ben Tillman's lawyer.

Over the years, Republican ideas and Republican tactics came more and more to resemble the ideas and tactics of Ben Tillman.  And now we have the Tea Party.

I think some of you right now are thinking, Ben Tillman was a long time ago.  We've had the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, the Great Society.  It's no longer fashionable to hate black people in public, and just about everybody looks forward to Social Security and Medicare.

How can Ben Tillman's ideas, born of racism, elitism, and xenophobia, possibly have direct influence on our public discourse today?  It's even more ridiculous to think that his tactics might prove useful in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Well, as William Faulkner of Mississippi put it, "The past is not dead.  It's not even over."  Ask Jim DeMint.  Ask Lindsey Graham.

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