Saturday, October 01, 2016

1963 and 2016: fanatical segregationists creating their own version of reality

James Silver's Mississippi: The Closed Society, originally published in 1964, was an important and influential book on segregation and the civil rights movement in Mississippi. And about the 1963 riot at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) when James Meredith was admitted as the first African-American student. (At least knowingly admitted as such. At least one black student had "passed" as white in attending Ole Miss in 1945-6 on a Navy study program.) The University of Mississippi Press issued a new edition of Silver's in 2012.

Since the national Republican Party has "Mississippized" itself in the sense of 1964 - maybe "Ross Barneettized" would be a better term after the treason-minded governor that instigated the Ole Miss riot - Silver's description of the social context and mentality of segregation among whites has newly contemporary relevance.

The night of insurrection at Ole Miss has been called the most explosive federal-state clash since the Civil War. Before the work was done, the Army brought more troops to Mississippi than General Washington had ever commanded at one time, and almost as many as General Sherman had had in the environs of Oxford exactly 100 years before. Several hundred reporters from all news and interpretative media concentrated on the Mississippi campus to ferret out the facts about what had actually taken place and to inquire into the background of the state's turmoil. By and large the reporting was accurate and the interpretation sound and temperate. Those who wished to know have had spread before them a reasonably trustworthy record of events.

This is true for all the world except Mississippi. With their long history of being on the defensive against outside criticism, and with their predisposition to believe their own leaders can do no wrong, the people have been almost completely deceived. The closed society intuitively and immediately projected (in fact, it had foreshadowed) the orthodox version that the insurrection came as the inevitable result of federal encroachment, deliberately planned by the Kennedys and callously incited by [federal Chief Marshal] McShane when he called for tear gas. What did happen in front of the Lyceum Building in that crucial hour before eight o'clock on the night of September 30? Truth cries out that the orthodox Mississippi view is false, that cleverness in shifting the culpability for defiance of law from those creating the violence to those enforcing the law could only succeed among a people suffering from a touch of paranoia. [my emphasis]
Silver notes that there were calls by Mississippi officials for indictment of McShane and other federal officials. White segregationists were very concerned to maintain "law and order" when it came to black people. But they were not hesitant to condemn law-enforcement officials who were demanding that white rioters conduct themselves according to the law. White Lives Mattered to Mississippi segregationists.

Silver addresses the use of tear gas:

Whether Chief Marshal James P. McShane was justified in giving the order to fire at precisely the moment he did is a question for the professionals to answer. It is relevant, however, that between 40 and 50 faculty members and their wives later testified that the marshals had undergone for at least an hour a constant harassment of obscene language and a minute-by-minute heavier barrage of lighted cigarette butts, stones, bottles, pieces of pipe, and even acid. It is a small matter whether the gas should have come fifteen minutes earlier or later, but it is rather ironic that a full-scale insurrection should get under way at the exact moment that the President was appealing to Mississippians on radio and television for fair play, in the name of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. [my emphasis]
I've previously described L.Q.C. Lamar as "a genuine villain who conned gullible Yankees with his 'moderate' talk while fighting for white supremacy and against democracy." JFK had made Lamar one of his "profiles in courage" in his famous book.

Dealing with Ross Barnett, in particular, though, showed Kennedy that his conservative view of Reconstruction was probably deeply flawed. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978) quotes John Kennedy from 06/20/1963 commenting specifically on the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers: "I don't understand the South. I'm coming to believe that [Radical Republican Reconstruction-era Congressman] Thaddeus Stevens was right. I had always been taught to regard him as a man of vicious bias. But when I see this sort of thing, I begin to wonder how else you can treat them."

"Them" in this case being hardcore Southern segregationists.

Silver rightly notes, "The President had no alternative except the use of federal power when the execution of the order [to admit Meredith] was prevented by state force." That authority was clarified during the Civil War. But even in 2016, their are still political descendants of John Calhoun who would reverse that verdict. Unless they wanted to use federal troops against black communities, immigrants or labor, of course.

Schlesinger also provides this transcript of a telephone conversation between the Governor of Mississippi and the President of the United States:

BARNETT. That's what it's going to boil down to - whether Mississippi can run its institutions or the federal government is going to run things ....
KENNEDY. I don't understand, Governor. Where do you think this is going to take your own state?
BARNETT. A lot of states haven't had the guts to take a stand. We are going to fight this thing. . . . This is like a dictatorship. Forcing him physically into Ole Miss. General, that might bring on a lot of trouble. You don't want to do that. You don't want to physically force him in.
KENNEDY. You don't want to physically keep him out. ... Governor, you are a part of the United States.
BARNETT. We have been a part of the United States but I don't know whether we are or not.
KENNEDY. Are you getting out of the Union?

BARNETT. lt looks like we're being kicked around - like we don't belong to it. General, this thing is serious.
KENNEDY. It's serious here.
BARNETT. Must it be over one little boy - backed by cominunist front - backed by the NAACP which is a communist front? ... I'm going to treat you with every courtesy but I won't agree to let that boy to get to Ole Miss. I will never agree to that. I would rather spend the rest of my life in a penitentiary than do that.
KENNEDY. I have a responsibility to enforce the laws of the United States .... The orders of the court are going to be upheld. As I told you, you are a citizen not only of the State of Mississippi but also of the United States. Could I give you a ring?
BARNETT. You do that. . . . Good to hear from you. [my emphpasis]

Silver's account is also a reminder that rightwing whining about the so-called liberal press has been around for a while:

In the more than a year since then [the riot], politicians, editors, judges, lawyers, educators, churchmen — all the makers of public opinion — have continued the hypocritical tirade of misrepresentation and deceit. It does impress people who are attuned to hearing nothing else and want to hear nothing else. In the 1963 campaign, every gubernatorial candidate started out with a deep hatred for the Kennedys, and the man who screamed the loudest is now Mississippi's governor. While warming up in Florida for the main event, Paul Johnson, then lieutenant governor, spoke on the subject, "The Cause of Freedom Won at Oxford and We Have Just Begun to Fight." President Kennedy, it would seem, had tried "to subvert the foundation pillars of this great government," backed by a "kept segment" of national press, television, and radio grinding out "its slanted story, half truths and prejudiced propaganda." [my emphasis]
And the unwillingness of those fabled moderate Republicans to stand up against Trump and his overt white supremacist Presidential campaign also has a familiar ring to those who have some knowledge about Mississippi-style segregation. Silver writes:

There are moderates in Mississippi who look upon the future with some degree of optimism because increasing numbers of colored citizens are becoming eligible to vote. Unquestionably the promise of tomorrow has some merit, but not because of the assistance of [white] men of good will. The voter registration drives are all conducted by local Negroes and "outside agitators" of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, and other organizations. In the courts the chief defender of firstclass citizenship for colored Mississippians is the U.S. Department of Justice. The Mississippi Civil Rights Advisory Committee, which seeks to protect the rights of all Mississippians, has found it well nigh impossible to recruit members.

The most unreasonable and cruel tirade James Meredith had to endure came from a [Memphis] Commercial Appeal columnist. Having, at least privately, expressed some sympathy for a much-maligned individual, this man of good will pounced upon Meredith's first apparent false step (his criticism of the U.S. Army), denouncing him as an "ignoble failure" who had betrayed his race and damaged its reputation beyond calculation. The column was filled with innuendo, falsehood, and bad judgment. Its author, who laid claim to an "overload of grief, compassion and charity," demonstrated hp had none of these qualities when he refused to rectify in any way his character assassination of an innocent man. Once again, the pious, self-righteous man of irresponsibility had failed miserably, even in a mild crisis. [my emphasis]
To quote Arlo Guthrie, "Some things change, you know. Some things don't."

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