Sunday, April 15, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month, August 14: Ulrich Phillips and the white supremacist narrative

Still catching up on this month's series, and returning one more time to the essay by slavery historian Ulrich Phillips, The Central Theme of Southern History (American Historical Review 34:1; Oct 1928). Phillips, despite being a legitimate important historian on the basis of his research, nevertheless organized his material on the basis of a proslavery and white supremacist narrative. And this essay fully reflects that.

And this was not an essay in some cheap political pamphlet. The American Historical Review was and remains a major scholarly journal. He was writing with the cachet of highbrow respectability.

The essay is about what he calls Southern unity and "solidarity," meaning in his case white Southern segregationist unity around segregation, white supremacy, and Jim Crow laws in what became known as the Solid South reliably dominated by segregationist Democrats. He views the "Redemption," aka, the overthrow of democratic Reconstruction governments in the South by force, violence, intimidation, and fraud, in a favorable light.

But, he warns, the white Southerners could never truly feel secure in their dominance, "because the negro population remains as at least a symbolic potentiality." As opposed to, say, human beings with the right to full American citizenship including the vote (for black men, anyway). This "at least a symbolic potentiality" created "a certain sense of bafflement and of defensive self-containment." Which I suppose is a highbrow euphemism for white racist hatred and fear.

And he explains approvingly the white majority's response:

... by Southern hypothesis, exalted into a creed, negroes in the mass were incompetent for any good political purpose and by reason of their inexperience and racial unwisdom were likely to prove subversive. To remove the temptation to white politicians to lead negroes to the polls again, "white primaries" were instituted to control nominations, educational requirements for the suffrage were inserted in the state constitutions, and the Bryanizing of the Democratic party was accepted as a means of healing a white rift. Even these devices did not wholly lay the spectre of "negro domination"; for the fifteenth amendment stood in the Constitution and the calendar of Congress was not yet free of "force bills".
The white primary meant allowing only whites to vote in the Democratic nominating primaries. Since the Democratic nominee was all but automatically going to be the elected candidate in the general elections statewide in and in most Congressional and legislative districts. The literacy requirements - which some Republicans are making noises about trying to revive - was another technique for disenfranchising black citizens. These allowed the local, usually white, voter registrar to wave through even the most illiterate whites as passing the test, while black college professors could be disqualified.

This is worth noting. The Segregation 1.0 system did not explicitly exclude black voters. The Southern states found it necessary to make that much of a concession to the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. And not all black voters were disfranchised in the old Confederacy. And, in addition, some poor whites were disenfranchised by the voter suppression measures such as the poll tax.

Phillips' reference to "Bryanization" refers to the power of the Populist movement in some areas of the South. As Phillips explains, also with obvious approval of the white-supremacist counter-measures:
A dozen years sufficed to restore white control, whereupon they began to differ among themselves upon various issues. Many joined the People's party; and in some quarters a fusion was arranged of Populists and Republicans to carry elections. In the stress of campaigning this threatened to bring from within the South a stimulus to negroes as political auxiliaries.
Some Southern Populists actually did challenge the segregation system and build biracial coalitions.

Phillips was right in understanding that the white powers-that-be saw that development of potentially dangerous to their system. In that essay, though, he does not acknowledge that the white solidarity was one that had to be maintained with some considerable effort on the part of the ruling groups. There was more going on than unanimous white agreement on the superiority of current social arrangements in the South.

By the time of Phillips' 1928 essay, the Populist threat was in abeyance for the moment. Though defenders of the Solid (White) South knew that the threat was chronic. And the threat of the US Constitution and the American way of life confronting the segregation system, as Northern democracy had earlier confronted the threat of the slave system, was always hanging in the air:
... white Southerners when facing problems real or fancied concerning the ten million negroes in their midst can look to the federal authorities for no more at best than a tacit acquiescence in what their state governments may do. Acquiescence does not evoke enthusiasm; and until an issue shall arise predominant over the lingering one of race, political solidarity at the price of provincial status is maintained to keep assurance doubly, trebly sure that the South shall remain "a white man's country".
This was a backhanded concession on Phillips' part that Southern racial practices actually were the Other of American democracy.

It's worth stressing again. This was not a fringe crackpot position that Phillips was taking in 1928. It was considered entirely respectable even in the scholarly mainstream.

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