The Legacy of Slavery Still Poisons American Politics

by James Burkinshaw 

In 1984, at the age of 17, I spent a gap year at  Troy State University, in Alabama, in what is still called the Deep South, on something called the Governor’s Scholarship. The name of Alabama’s then-governor, George Wallace, emblazoned almost every building on the campus: dormitories, lunch hall, lecture halls and administration buildings all seemed to be named after him. 

At that time, Wallace was in the middle of his final term as governor, during which he appointed a record number of African-Americans to government positions. However, only 15 years previously, he had run what Jimmy Carter (then Governor of neighbouring Georgia) described  as “the most racist campaign in modern Southern history”, airing a TV ad with the slogan “Do you want the black block electing your governor” and another showing a white girl surrounded by seven black boys with the slogan “Wake up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama!”, tapping into the most atavistic Southern white paranoia. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Wallace, as governor, had barred the entrance to campuses such as Troy State, refusing to admit black students to whites-only universities and declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in defiance of the efforts of the Johnson administrations to enact civil rights and voting rights reforms. 

Wallace campaigning for President, 1968.
And it was on this segregationist platform that Wallace also ran for President in 1968 (the first of four attempts) polling ten million votes nationwide, winning five Southern states---enough to deny the Democrats a victory and to allow Richard Nixon to win a crucial victory that would lay the foundations of Republican dominance of American presidential politics for the next four decades, until the election of Barack Obama exactly forty years later. It is not without reason that George Wallace has been described as the “most influential loser in 20th century American politics.” 

One of the conditions of my scholarship was that, like all international students at Troy State, I  attend a class on Local and State Government by an ex-Alabama governor, an avuncular teacher called John Patterson. It was only later that I discovered that it was this kindly old man who had heavily defeated George Wallace in the latter's first attempt at the governorship a quarter of a century before, in 1958; with the support of racist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan, Patterson had portrayed Wallace as too “soft” on segregation. Wallace famously said afterwards: “You know I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career and nobody listened . . . He talked about (blacks) and them white voters stomped the floor . . ." (As an interesting aside, John Patterson, who is still alive and now in his late nineties, endorsed Barack Obama for President in 2008).

Another politics professor of mine, at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Patterson, was a man called Bob Knott, who set me working with the American Civil Liberties Union on the Voting Rights Project, investigating and reporting legal ways in which state authorities still suppressed black voting, 20 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965---for example, placing ballot boxes in whites-only churches, restricting staffing of polling stations in black areas to create long waiting lines designed to discourage voting, even printing leaflets with the wrong voting date. For all Wallace’s rhetoric of racial harmony and public regret for his earlier segregationist rhetoric, his state government continued to sanction methods designed to subvert the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. It was my experiences working on the Voting Rights Project that triggered my interest in American politics as a whole and particularly the way in which the tangled and often poisonous history of the American Southern continues to affect, and perhaps infect, the national body politic nationally and, because of America’s superpower status, internationally.

As a foreign student in Alabama, one of the first things I noticed was the prevalence of references to the Civil War or as it was known in the South The War for Southern Independence. Every other car seemed to have the bumper sticker “The South will rise again”; people would still proudly refer to themselves as “rebels”. People, young and old, would talk about the war itself as if it had happened only yesterday. Many of my fellow students, with their long hair and goatee beards consciously or unconsciously emulated the Cavaliers who had been the role models for so many young Southern men from before the Civil War. Mark Twain, himself born in the neighbouring state of Mississippi, accused the Romantic Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, several of whose novels idealised medieval knights and seventeenth century English cavaliers, of causing the Civil War: "It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made those gentlemen value their bogus decorations . . . Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war." 
Statue of Confederate General (and founder of Ku Klux Klan), Nathan Bedford Forrest

The defeat of the Confederate forces at the end of the Civil War, far from destroying this Romantic self image, embedded it all the more deeply within the white South’s sense of its own identity. More so, in fact, than before the Civil War, a time in which many Southerners in general were far more clear-eyed about the limitations of a culture based on slave ownership. The essence of Confederate nostalgia after their loss in 1865 was a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride, with interesting parallels with other cultures that have suffered defeat (the Serbs, certain communities in Northern Ireland and some Arab cultures suggest themselves). What makes this Southern culture of defeat and resentment against Northern oppression, as exemplified by the Federal government, all the more remarkable is that it stands in direct contrast to the self image of the United States as a whole, which is one of success and optimism, rooted in a sense of exceptionalism. The Southern-born historian C. Vann Woodward, in his Irony of Southern History, noted the unique and eccentric position of the South in the nation, while noting that it is America that is unique among the peoples of the world in its experience of unbridled success and victory, a legend that is not shared by any other people of the civilized world, although his words rang more true in 1953 than today, in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate, 9/11, The Iraq War and other blows to the American psyche. As Woodward noted, the South had undergone an experience (of defeat, submission and poverty) that it could share with no other part of America. Retreating into a dream world, Southerners insisted that others accept their antebellum cavalier fantasy as an accurate description of conditions in the South. However, at the same time, this nostalgia was entangled with an ironic and often bitter detachment from the optimism of American national culture. 
Southern writers were not blind to Northern hypocrisy and sanctimony, particularly the claim that its motivation had simply been the liberation of the slaves, ignoring the complexities of the position of Abraham Lincoln himself who saw the emancipation of the slaves as primarily an economic measure to destroy the South rather than as a moral imperative. It can be argued that issues such as protectionism versus free trade played a role as significant in the Southern decision to secede as that of slavery and part of the Southern resentment of the North after the war centred on its perceived attempt to impose an unwanted industrial system upon the agrarian South. However, because Northern criticism of the South, after the war, centred upon slavery, the South’s self defence ultimately rallied around that same point, whereby white Southern cultural identity became irredeemably identified with and defined by slavery. As a result, loyalty to race, rather than region, became embedded in Southern white culture, with disastrous effects both racially and economically. 

The first African-American members of the US Congress, c. 1870
Southern whites experienced brutal levels of poverty after the Civil War, the Southern economy having been devastated. However, any attempt by certain populist leaders to unite the interests of poor whites and blacks in the region foundered on the racist ideology that, if anything, was intensified further by Southern defeat, and persuaded poor whites that the cause of their problems was “uppity” blacks, freed from slavery and now taking their jobs, or, even worse, taking their tax dollars through welfare programmes. In 1919, The Shreveport Times, in Louisiana, wrote: “We venture to say that fully ninety per cent of all the race troubles in the South are the result of the Negro forgetting his place. If the black man will stay where he belongs, act like a negro should act, work like a negro should work, talk like a negro should talk, and study like a negro should study, there will be very few riots, fights or clashes. 

Scene from Birth of a Nation - in which the Klan are
presented as heroes and the lynching victim as villain
The newly-freed slaves and ensuing generations of African Americans in the South, between the 1870s and the 1960s were subjected to an increasingly punitive and vicious regime under the infamous “Jim Crow” laws, which brought segregation into effect throughout the region---invariably resulting in underfunded and inferior facilities for black Southerners, whether schools, hospitals, toilets, housing, even public drinking fountains. Many of the laws were not rescinded until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 100 years after the end of the Civil War. In addition, voting restrictions left African Americans powerless, subject to arbitrary and often brutal treatment by Southern whites of all classes. However, Southern racist ideology, defined Southern whites as the victims and African Americans (along with Northern politicians) as a threat---this meme was most brutally effective in the imagery of rape of white women by black men, as portrayed in DW Griffiths’ hugely influential 1915 film Birth of a Nation based on a bestselling novel, The Klansman, set during and after the Civil War. The success of both film and book in the North, as well as the South, confirm the prevalence of intensely racist attitudes throughout white American society in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, within the lifetimes of many Northerners who had fought for the Union ostensibly to end slavery. 
A powerful corrective to the heroic image of lynching portrayed in the film is the searing poem, 'Strange Fruit', written by Abel Mereropol, a Jewish teacher from the Bronx and an early civil rights campaigner. Describing in brutal terms the African-American victim of a lynching, the lyrics bitterly mock the Southern, white self-image of a pastoral idyll populated by gallant cavaliers and their ladies, portrayed in novels and in films such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind (released in 1939, the same year 'Strange Fruit' was written). The poem was later set to music and is sung, here, by Nina Simone:

"Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
  The big bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
  Scent of magnolia clean and fresh
  Then the sudden smell of burning flesh . . ."
                                                                           (from 'Strange Fruit')

Something that almost any European visiting or observing America notes is America’s lack of a welfare state on the scale of those of most modern European democracies. This, again, is in large part a legacy of post-Civil War white Southern culture. Sociologist Nathan Glazer, who was long interested in the question of America’s underdeveloped welfare state, answers a related question: “Why Americans don’t care about income inequality.” Citing a comprehensive study by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth called, "Why Doesn't the United States have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2/2001), he shows that the reluctance of Americans to embrace an egalitarian economic philosophy not only goes back to the beginning of the republic in the late 1700s but that there is evidence that racial attitudes lie at the heart of such reluctance. The authors report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. Whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty. Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution.” 

Cartoon perpetuating racist image
of a 'Welfare Queen' - 2009
Glazer notes that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, various immigrant support systems and a variety of religious institutions provided for the poor: It was within these that many of the services that are the mark of a fully developed welfare state were provided. However, the situation of African-Americans was different, released from slavery in the 1860s but equipped with no inherent support system, they were much more dependent, owing to their limited economic opportunities within the restrictive and segregated Jim Crow regime, on the poorly developed primitive public services offered by the states. Many poor whites came to see welfare as having a black face, with terms of derision such as “welfare queens” carrying racial connotations and assumptions. Even a president as powerful as Franklin D Roosevelt, in the teeth of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, could only secure white Southern electoral support for his welfare programme by agreeing not to push civil rights or voting rights legislation in the South. The consensus, forged by President Johnson in the wake of Kennedy’s death, in the mid 60s, to pass civil rights and voting rights in 1965 was fragile and ephemeral. Only three years later, in 1968, George Wallace’s presidential campaign effectively signalled the end of Democratic reliance on southern white votes, ushering in 40 years of Republican hegemony. 

We have already noted the potency of the myth of the white woman at risk from the black man. In the 1988 presidential campaign, Democrat Michael Dukkakis’ campaign was in part destroyed by an ad playing on that same racial fear. His campaign manager noted: “You can’t find a stronger metaphor for racial hatred in this company than a black man raping a white woman.” 

This kind of racial politics had been central to the Republican political strategy since George Wallace’s insurgent, independent presidential campaign of 1968 opened their eyes to the possibilities of tapping traditional Southern resentments and enticing voters in the South away from the Democratic Party that had dominated there since before the Civil War. The Republican Party made huge gains in the South and in white enclaves in northern cities because of reaction against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Frustration among African Americans following the failure of the Civil Rights successes to translate into economic opportunity for black people led to riots in the late 60s, which further terrified some whites, tapping into traditional racial fears. 

The kind of racial politics typified by the Willie Horton ad, harnessing white and primarily Southern racial resentment and fear, enabled the Republican party to take advantage of the very class inequalities that their laissez-faire economic philosophy defended. It was poorer whites, traditionally Democrat voters, who were most likely now to live in desegregated neighbourhood, to feel economically insecure as the economy struggled in the 1970s and to feel vulnerable as crime rose during the same period, searching for a scapegoat: race, as in the past, trumped class. This was something that some Democrats had understood, even as they passed Civil Rights legislation, President Lyndon Johnson noting “I think we just delivered the South to the Republicans for a long time to come.”

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights
Act, 1964, watched by Martin Luther King
Johnson also identified the dilemma of offering true “equality of opportunity”: Imagine a hundred yard dash in which one of the two runners has his legs shackled together. He has progressed ten yards while the unshackled runner has gone fifty yards. At this point, the judges decide the race is unfair. How do they rectify the situation? Do they merely remove the shackles and allow the race to proceed? Then they could say that equal opportunity now prevailed. But one of the runners would still be forty yards ahead of the other. Would it not be the better part of justice to allow the other runner to make up the forty yard gap or to start the race all over again? That would be affirmative action towards equality. 

How does a society like America with such a complex class structure so tied up with racial identity start the race fairly all over again without exacerbating racial resentments and tensions further? Detailed studies showed that white voters who shifted to the Republicans during this period were preoccupied with a sense of unfairness, that they were being discriminated against at the expense of African Americans. Affirmative action seemed to suggest that white lower and middle class workers deserved to be stuck in their lowly jobs while minority groups (code for “black people”) were undeservingly promoted above them.  

Someone who understood this sense of resentment well was Republican, Richard Nixon, who won the 1968 election in large part because of George Wallace eating into the white Democratic vote in the South. Nixon even echoed Wallace’s language, but more subtly coded to appeal to racial fears without appearing nakedly racist. Such phrases became known as “dog whistles”, designed to be understood by specific listeners without offending mainstream voters as explicitly racist. The potency of this strategy is undeniable. In his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Thomas Frank notes that it enables the Republican Party to exploit people’s cultural and racial identity to distract them from their economic self interest: "Repossess their homes and today’s Kansans, next thing you know, will be protesting in front of abortion clinics. Strip them of their job security, and they blame immigration and affirmative action programmes, as they head out to join the Republican Party."

The election of Barack Obama in November 2008, with victories in Southern states that hadn’t voted Democratic for over thirty years, seemed to exorcise the racial demons that had haunted America since its inception. White voters as well as black, from every region of the country, including the Old Confederacy, had overwhelmingly elected a black man president. However, within months of Obama’s election, a new, almost exclusively white movement, naming itself the Tea Party Movement, began not only to militate against the President’s economic agenda, accusing him of communism, but called into question his very right to be a citizen of the United States. A disturbing number of Tea Party protestors clearly viewed these issues in racial terms, sometimes using overtly racist language. 

A survey of the Tea Party Movement in April 2010, by the University of Washington concluded that 1% of its membership was African-American and a further 1% were Asian-American. 92% of Tea Party members are white. Nearly 40% of the membership are from the Deep South. While 74% see cutting welfare programmes as a priority for the country, only 6% see reform of Wall Street as a priority. 

Whether the Tea Party Movement has long-term future remains to be seen, but it seems to me that it is part of a long tradition of American political organisations that tap into a long Southern-based tradition of resentment and fear, subordinating economic self interest to cultural and racial identity. As white Americans form a rapidly decreasing percentage of the overall American population and as the US government reports a rapidly increasing membership of nativist and white supremacist militia organisations, including a reviving Ku Klux Klan, it seems that what Thomas Jefferson described as America’s “original sin”, the institution of slavery and its poisonous legacy continues to infect America politics.  

This article is based on a talk presented by James Burkinshaw to PGS' Politics Society in 2010. Author's Note (February 2020): in the decade since this talk was originally presented, racial resentment and fear among sections of America's white population seem only to have deepened, despite the re-election of America's first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2012. Obama's successor, Donald Trump, has proven himself willing, and eager, to go beyond the 'dog whistle' approach of George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, to a more overtly racist politics actively predicated on fomenting racial and cultural divisions within American society. The Tea Party has 'evolved' seamlessly into the MAGA movement.