Saturday, April 20, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 20: Theodore Bilbo (Updated)

Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947), Senator from Mississippi and supporter of New Deal economic legislation, was one of the most rancid white racists to ever sit in the US Senate.

Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947)

Robert L. Fleegler in Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938-1947 Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 2006) reminds us why:

On May 24, 1938, Bilbo formally proposed legislation to return blacks to Africa. During a floor speech on the proposal, he rejected new social science theories that suggested that environment rather than genetics determined an individual’s capabilities. "It is the height of folly," he insisted, "to assume that environment, discipline, education, and all other external devices can affect the blood, smooth down inequalities between individuals of the same breed, much less between different breeds, or transmute racial qualities." Bilbo went on to praise Nazi racial doctrines. "The Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have. ... They know, as few other nations have realized, that the impoverishment of race values contributes more to the impairment and destruction of a civilization than any other agency." [my emphasis]
Fleegler makes an important point about what might be called the social-psychological economy of white racist politics, in which fine distinctions were made on the basis of often insubstantial differences:

Many southern politicians continued to use extreme language similar to Bilbo's [after 1947]. Major southern figures such as James Eastland, Richard Russell, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace played the race card and supported Jim Crow with all their energies well into the 1960s. But they usually avoided the kind of overt racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Italian remarks that Bilbo consistently expressed. Instead they employed code words; these legislators talked of the need to protect the South from “outside agitators” and the necessity of defending "state’s rights," but rarely used the terms niggers or kikes.
Fleegler gives a sense of how Bilbo's extreme racism could be accompanied by his support for liberal New Deal ideas, reflecting the way in which the near-total exclusion of blacks from voting in Mississippi left room for some limited amount of class-based politics between "conservatives" and "rednecks". And division which later allowed some wealthier but conservative Mississippians to blame the working-class rednecks for white racism. Fleegler writes:

Scholars have debated whether or not Bilbo's commitment to white supremacy was genuine or merely a cynical attempt to earn votes. Chester Morgan, whose book Redneck Liberal details Bilbo’s progressive record on economic issues during his Senate tenure, believes that the demagogue label is unfair. Morgan suggests that "The Man" truly believed in racial separation and that Bilbo discussed racial issues only after his opponents first raised the subject. Morgan believes that the southern establishment attempted to discredit Bilbo's progressive economic views through race baiting. For example, Bilbo’s Bourbon [conservative] opponents attacked him for being soft on racial issues because he suggested that the state abolish the poll tax. Bourbons supported the poll tax not only because it eliminated the political power of blacks but also because the measure disfranchised many of Bilbo’s poor white supporters.

Still, Bilbo’s racist outbursts erupted at suspicious times. His most famous periods of race baiting were in 1938 and 1944, points at which he was beginning re-election campaigns for the Senate, a pattern suggesting political purposes. In all likelihood, both sides of this debate are correct. Perhaps his appeals to class differences superseded his appeals to white supremacy during much of his career; however, as civil rights legislation slowly gained momentum during the 1930s and 1940s, race became increasingly central to his philosophy and he expressed his supremacist views in a more extreme fashion than most of his fellow southern politicians.
It's worth noting in the political environment of 2013 that the requirement for government-issued ID is a backdoor form of poll tax since it typically requires the payment of a fee for the ID.

Bilbo could cite some legendary pre-Civil War names of men regarded as great statesmen who had endorsed the idea of deporting blacks. But those were in the context of Abolitionist schemes to end slavery. White opponents of slavery looked favorably on "colonization" of freed slaves back to Africa, partly out of a general assumption that blacks were inferior to white but also in connection with the heavy association of slavery with the presence of blacks. As discussed in yesterday's post, the fight over Indian Removal in the 1930s was one event that made some white Abolitionists realize not only the impracticability but the inhumanity of the colonization scheme, which in any case had never achieved much resonance among African-American Abolitionists.

(Update 04/27/2013: This previous paragraph could leave the impression that antebellum advocates of colonization were all Abolitionists. They were not. In my 04/26/2013 post, I discuss the contradictory nature of the colonization program. On the other hand, many Republicans in the first years of that Party's existence advocated colonization after abolition in an attempt to broaden the appeal of their Abolitionist program.)

Fleegler's essay focuses on how Bilbo's rancid racism came increasingly into conflict with changing attitudes about race and legal equality in connection with the Second World War:

Bilbo made a speech to the Mississippi State legislature on March 22, 1944, in which typical Bilboisms contained new references to the racial changes brought about by the war. He reiterated his proposal to resettle blacks in West Africa, saying, "When this war is over and more than two million Negro soldiers, whose minds have been filled and poisoned with political and social equality stuff, return and 'hell breaks out' all over the country, I think I’ll get more help in settling the Negroes in Africa."

... The debate over appropriations for the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) in the summer of 1944 also demonstrated a heightened awareness of Bilbo’s racism. Bilbo again proposed the repatriation of blacks to West Africa and, referring to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's opposition to such a scheme, said, “Of course, she did not understand my ultimate plan. If I can succeed eventually in resettling the great majority of Negroes in West Africa— and I propose to do it—I might entertain the proposition of crowning Eleanor queen of Greater Liberia.” While this language was incendiary, it was not dramatically different from Bilbo’s rhetoric during the 1938 anti-lynching debate.

But by early 1944, such blatant bigotry drew more notice. The New York Times, which had ignored earlier instances of Bilbo’s racism, noted that "From the opening until the final passage vote, debate was conducted with a bluntness as to racial questions which appeared to surprise and at times astound observers in the visitor’s galleries." Allen Drury, a UPI reporter, wrote in his diary, "The FEPC appropriation was sustained today, after a vicious, dirty speech by Bilbo, who was hissed from the galleries and deserved it." [my emphasis in bold]
Fleegler also observes throughout that Bilbo's white racism against blacks was accompanied by a shameless anti-Semitism, as well.

He also provides us this reminder of what voter suppression looked like in 1946:

Bilbo, however, now faced another problem in his native Mississippi. Some African-Americans in Mississippi were challenging segregation after a pair of changes created opportunities for black voting. In 1944, the Supreme Court had ruled the all-white Democratic primary unconstitutional in Smith v. Allwright. Moreover, the Mississippi legislature unintentionally opened the door to black participation when it exempted veterans from the poll tax in 1946. The legislature expected other measures, such as the literacy test, to prevent African-American veterans from voting. Emboldened by these measures, some black veterans, including a young man by the name of Medgar Evers, attempted to vote in the Democratic primary on July 2, 1946, the first statewide election after Smith v. Allwright.

With blacks engaged in an attack on a bulwark of white supremacy, Bilbo stepped up his rhetoric and engaged in incitements that had been unnecessary in the past. "I'm calling on every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes," he proclaimed, "and the best time to do that is the night before!" As a result of Bilbo’s inflammatory statements and the incitements of the local press, some white Mississippians responded with a campaign of intimidation and violence. Evers and a group of veterans made two attempts to vote in Decatur, but on both occasions white mobs prevented them from doing so. Their experience was replicated across the state, and few African-Americans were able to exercise their constitutional rights. [my emphasis in bold]

This is what vote suppression is. But I don't mean to say it's a "slippery slope." The present-day voter suppression tactics are the same thing as the vote suppression of the Jim Crow decades in Mississippi and the Deep South. We already see blatant psychological and physical intimidation of African-American and Latino voters happening. Again, what we're seeing today is not a "slippery slope." This is the bottom of the slope already, straight-up segregationist vote suppression. It will get worse if the current measures aren't rolled back. But this is an issue where present-day Americans have no reason to pat ourselves on the back that we've overcome that aspect of the past. It's the present again.

I'll conclude with this quote of Bilbo defending himself against charges of inciting violence and intimidation against black citizens. He goes on to say that he's a friend to the Negroes, just like, say, Rand "Baby Doc" Paul today. This isn't just ass-covering or hypocrisy, it's proud sneering at what he and his violent followers had accomplished in preventing the practice of democracy in the State of Mississippi:

The hearings concluded with Bilbo’s own testimony in which he claimed that he had never advocated violent means to prevent blacks from voting, suggesting that a hostile media had distorted his remarks. Bilbo declared, "I deny that I exhorted, agitated, and made any inflammatory appeals to the passions and prejudices of the white population to foster, stimulate, inspire, create and intensify a state of acute and aggravated tension between the white and Negro races in the state of Mississippi." He added, "I want to say right here off the record that the Negroes of Mississippi have never had a better friend."
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