U.S. History postsFriday August 18, 2017
Celebrating Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. Who could object?
I remember the first time I saw Stone Mountain in Georgia. My sister lived in Atlanta in the late 1990s, I was visiting, and I'd already gone to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center (which disappointed), the Ebenezer Baptist Church (cool), and MLK's childhood home (intriguing for imagining a young MLK running around). I'd walked the walk along Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, and had seen—hadn't I?—the old SCLC office, next to some liquor store in a rundown section of town. I'd shaken my head over that. Shouldn't there be upkeep? Shouldn't that be preserved?
All of that I did on my own. Then one day, as a group, we did Stone Mountain, 20 miles outside Atlanta and referenced in MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech. From the get-go, I felt like I'd landed in an alternate reality or enemy territory. I suppose I had. There was this big bas-relief sculpture carved into the mountain of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. “It's a Confederate Mount Rushmore,” I thought. But it was the walkway in the park that really got me. Different slabs indicated, as if they were points of pride, when each Confederate state seceded from the union. Here went South Carolina, there went North Carolina. This is when Virginia took up arms. And Georgia.
Civil War history? Not exactly. The relief sculpture was first conceived by Mrs. C. Helen Plane, charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1916, 50 years after the end of the Civil War, during the excitement following the release of D.W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation” and the subsequent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. All that rewriting going on. At the time, the mountain was owned by the Venable brothers, William and Samuel, the latter of whom was involved in the KKK, and they leased the north face of the mountain for the sculpture. Work started in the 1920s, stopped, stuttered. Decades went by. It gained momentum again during the civil rights movement but it wasn't officially completed until 1973, by which time the state of Georgia owned Stone Mountain. Not sure when the secessionist walkway was built. Either way, the thing is recent history.
I've always wondered over almost any kind of memoralization or romanticization of the Confederacy. “The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down”? Isn't that really about the end of slavery? So why does The Band make it seem sad? Why the Confederate flag on the Gen. Robert E. Lee for the good ol' boys of “Dukes of Hazard”? Isn't this a symbol of ... defection? Treason? It felt like a disconnect. It felt like the true meaning of the thing was always passed over, swept aside, handled with a wink.
Not anymore. Maybe we can thank Trump and the white nationalists for this. Maybe it's the one thing in this long awful year we can thank them for.
Pearl Harbor + 108 Days
I saw this at the Wing Luke Museum in the International District in Seattle last August when I was doing research on the actor Keye Luke. It was part of an exhibit on the internment camps of World War II:
When I took this photo, the internment camps for Japanese-Americans were still part of our national shame. They weren't yet considered a blueprint for future actions by a Trump administration or Republicans in general.
Coming Soon: 'Wilmington on Fire'
From last week's “Talk of the Town” section in The New Yorker:
On November 10, 1898, a coup d’état took place on United States soil. It was perpetrated by a gang of white-supremacist Democrats in Wilmington, N.C., who were intent on reclaiming power from the recently elected, biracial Republican government, even if, as one of the leaders vowed, “we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” They had a Colt machine gun capable of firing 420 .23-calibre bullets a minute. They had the local élite and the press on their side. By the end of the day, they had killed somewhere between 14 and 60 black men and banished 20 more, meanwhile forcing the mayor, the police chief, and the members of the board of aldermen to resign.
The new government remained in control, of both the town and the story. Subsequent generations of white residents knew about the events of 1898 as a “revolution” or a “race riot,” if they knew about them at all. In the black community, the episode remained a suppressed trauma.
A new documentary about the masscare will be available (on Amazon) on its anniversary, Nov. 10, two days after the presidential election.
Asa Carter: The White Supremacist Behind the Eastwood Hero
I didn't know this about the original author of Clint Eastwood's “Outlaw Josey Wales,” but it figures. From Wikipedia:
The film was adapted by Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman from author Forrest Carter's 1973 novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (republished, as shown in the movie's opening credits, as Gone to Texas). Forrest Carter was an alias assumed by Asa Carter: a former Ku Klux Klan leader, a speechwriter for George Wallace, and later an opponent of Wallace for Governor of Alabama on a white supremacist platform.
Apparently The New York Times uncovered this information in 1976, even as “Forrest” continued to deny it. It gets worse. From PBS:
Carter, a right-wing radio announcer and founder of his own Ku Klux Klan organization, was a man with a dark, troubling past. “He had a long history of violence, in fact, it's not an exaggeration to call him something of a kind of psychopath,” says Wallace biographer Dan Carter. Asa Carter had shot two men in a dispute over money just a few years before joining Wallace's campaign, and his Klan group shared his volatile temperament. “In one eighteen-month period,” recounts Dan Carter in his George Wallace biography, “his followers joined in the stoning of Autherine Lucy on the University of Alabama campus, assaulted black singer Nat King Cole on a Birmingham stage, beat Birmingham civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth and stabbed his wife, and, in what was billed as a warning to potential black 'trouble-makers,' castrated a randomly-chosen, slightly retarded black handyman.”
Carter became one of Wallace's main speechwriters, and thought up the now-infamous line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When Wallace softened, he didn't, and ran (dead last) on a white supremacist platform in 1970. Then he took up the Forrest Carter mantle, and wrote “Josey Wales,” in which the heroic Southerner's family is butchered and raped by Union forces, survives by his wits and guns, and delivers anti-government sentiments to a receptive audience: Native Americans. Then he wrote a book purported to be the true-life tale of a Native American.
There's a recent documentary on him here.
I might need to revisit Eastwood's movies some time.
Asa Carter, full bore.
Pres. Obama's Speech at the Edmond Pettus Bridge on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday
Via Ezra Klein's piece on Vox, these two grafs (at 16:26):
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing's changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing's changed. Ask your gay friend if it's easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don't need the Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.