On the night of February 26th, 2012, a 17-year-old black man in Sanford, Florida was returning to his father’s fiance’s home in a gated community, when a confrontation occurred, the outcome of which was that Martin was shot and died. It was late in a winter afternoon, chilly and growing dark.
Another man, George Zimmerman, who lived in the area and was a sort of unofficial local constabulary was patrolling the area. On encountering Travyon Martin, Zimmerman called the local police to say that a stray black man was walking around in his neighborhood. The incident that followed is wrapped in confusing claims and the deadly lack of counter-claims, but the undisputed outcome is that Zimmerman shot Travyon Martin and Martin died.
A lot of people had comments about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman incident. Martin is dead and Zimmerman, who shot him, is alive and was acquitted of any deliberate malice in the shooting. There are all kinds of accusations and implications of this situation, not the least of which is the strong feeling among African-Americans that this was simply another unwarranted shooting death of an African-American male.
One day, Americans must finally look in the mirror and accept the fact that we live in a society that has long designated Blacks as second class citizens, and greatly diminished the value of a single life if that life is wrapped in a skin of a darker color.
Many Americans understand this and regret it. And almost all Black Americans feel it in their bones. Why? History of course, the history of a clearly racist society that created tiers based on color and entitlement based on economic status that grew out of that entitlement.
The history of the White man in America is one of opportunity, encouragement, growth, education and financial security. At least that has been a trend that we could chart upwards from the early 18th Century. Immigrants struggled, but were allowed to live in most areas. Immigrants were uneducated but their children had almost unlimited educational opportunities. Immigrants lived in shelters or tenements but their work created a family that was respected, treated fairly, and could move up the social ladder.
But the history of the Black man in America is completely different. These men and women did not immigrate here. They were imported. The Imported Americans…most of whom had no idea that this continent or this country even existed.
They were Americans, yes, because—after all, we are all Americans. But African-Americans were the only Imported Americans, the only people bought and sold by other Americans to be enslaved, to work in the fields and the grand plantations of their American masters.
The Imported Americans came as slaves, never better than second class citizens. In 1787 they were officially designated to be three-fifths of the value of White Americans. They never asked to be stolen, kidnapped and exported from their lands. They were taken by insensitive, avaricious slave dealers from both the Northern and Southern states and treated with such inhumanity as it is difficult to imagine in the 21st Century.
How did the myths about slavery and the disaster that it eventually became for the entire country come about. And what were the consequences for the human beings we began to Import as far back as the early 17th Century?
From 1619 to 1859 when the last slave ship, the “Clotilde” docked in Mobile, Alabama we imported 600,000 human beings from Africa to the United States and sold them at good prices to other human beings. We stopped importing human beings in 1860.
In the early 1600s, slaves were sold in all states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. In fact, in the 1640s, a Captain William Pierce sailed from New England to the West Indies to purchase slaves. By the mid-1640s, laws about the treatment of slaves were introduced into the New England colonies.
Other ships from ports in New England transported slaves to the West Indies where they were exchanged for sugar and tobacco which were then traded in New England for manufactured goods.
The generally recognized date for the beginning of real slavery, as opposed to indentured servitude, was 1619. In that year, 19 slaves, captured from the Spanish by the Dutch, the leading slave traders of that era were disembarked in Jamestown, Virginia. In those days of indentured servitude, the difference between slave and indentured servant was not as distinct.
What was it like being a captive on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic? Here’s one description:
“…the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought a sickness amongst the slaves of which many died thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravate by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocate. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable.” –Olaudah Equiano, a former slave transported on a slave ship
And then things got worse.
In the early days of slavery in the United States, both indentured servitude and outright slavery had its own term limits. A man could be enslaved or indentured for 7 years, for example, and then be free. There were, in fact, numerous free Black men living in the colonies. But soon the advent of large scale sugar, tobacco and eventually cotton farming made slaves a necessity and attitudes changed.
By 1705, a Virginia law said that if a slaveholder should kill a slave in the course of disciplining him or her, it was no crime. The slave was, the courts said, of no more or less value than a piece of real estate.
In the early 1800s, laws, commonly called Black Codes were enacted in the antebellum South to regulate the conduct of African-Americans. Not slaves, but free Blacks. They could not gather together in groups, own guns, learn to read or write, or testify against Whites at a trial.
The regulations grew stronger as slavery increased, particularly as slavery became a permanent way of life for many Blacks. With no hope of freedom, slaves rebelled. There were numerous slave rebellions, the most notable of which was the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831. Nat Turner was a very bright and self-educated slave, raised and living in Virginia, very religious and a person who seemed to other slaves to have somewhat Messianic visions.
On August 21, 1831, prompted by what Turner believed to be signs in the sky, Turner organized and initiated a slave revolt that spread across an area of Virginia and resulted in the brutal murders of 50 or 60 White men, women and children. The members of the Rebellion were captured and killed and the subsequent repercussions not only resulted in the eventual murders of several hundred more slaves, but contributed to laws that strictly forbade education to Blacks both free and enslaved in most southern states.
One of the serious aftermaths of the Nat Turner Rebellion was the prohibition against education for “Negroes” across the South. As a result, by the end of the Civil War and the initiation of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, hardly any slave was literate. In fact, although Southern White literacy was not much better, by 1900 only about 20% of African Americans in the South could read or write.
By 1860, there were 4,000,000 slaves in the United States. Almost all of whom were confined to plantations in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, Maryland and Delaware and parts of Missouri had slaves although those states fought on the Union side in the Civil War.
Today, the third and fourth generations of those rich plantation owners are very often wealthy men, in Charleston and New Orleans and Savannah and Jackson, educated, sophisticated and frequently horrified at what their ancestors did to Africans. But the value of the assets that their forbears accumulated and passed down, not only in tangible worth but education and culture cannot be overestimated.
After the war, the Imported Americans, who had been enslaved, then were forced into tenant farming, basically a class below peasant, bound to the land. Within a few years of the end of the war, they were legally denied education. This made them the designee for every simple, manual, often humiliating and degrading and debilitating job that anyone could possibly imagine over the next 100 years.
There were two signal events that changed the world for freedmen in the South and set the country on its path to a disastrous outcome…the creation of a second-class citizenry that has resulted in a two-tier economy, obstructive and wasteful politics, bankrupt cities and huge holes in the fabric of our society, where ghettos of African-Americans have been lodged.
The first event was the creation of the Jim Crow laws or the post-Civil War re-interpretation of the Black Codes. The basic issue was to create a sense of vagrancy. Through a variety of provisions prohibiting the movement of Black men, the basic idea was to create an ages-old designation of an individual as a vagrant. A Black man could not merely occupy a public space. To be a Black man without a specific reason to be somewhere was interpreted as vagrancy and vagrancy led to arrest and arrest led to jail and jail would often resulted in being “hired out” by the town to farms and plantations. Vagrancy was a simple means of controlling the Black population and even adding to the slave-wage work force.
In South Carolina, a black man could not enter the state from another state without a written letter of recommendation. He could not work except as a farmer or a servant. And, of course, if he were to be arrested for vagrancy, he could be imprisoned and the authorities could hire him out to a landowner to work off his penalties.
The answer to “Where are you going?’ for a black man in the South was not what it was for a White man or what it is today for any of us, namely, “None of your business.” For a White man in the South, it was a meaningful question and its outcome might have dollars attached. So, by the year 2013, Trayvon Martin was only the latest of the millions of black men challenged in the South, and his fate was no different from that of any Black man of a previous century who could have been, as many say Trayvon was–lynched–for his improper response.
The second circumstance concerning the Imported Americans that set our country on its unfortunate course was connected closely with the first. It was tenant farming and sharecropping. If you were a freedman after the Civil War, that is a freed slave, you had nothing. And worse, with the Black Codes, you were required to either be on your own property, your small piece of land that you farmed for a landowner or you had to be somewhere out of sight. You did not have the luxury of even being seen in public for fear of arrest and shipment off to a work gang.
The South, after the Civil War was broke. Plantation owners could not afford to hire ex-slaves as farm labor. The result was a system of tenant farming. Blacks and poor whites could lease a piece of land on which they would grow and tend crops and then share revenues with the landowner. This was good for the landowner who had no cash. It was good initially for ex-slaves who had nothing…no education, no real skills, no money and no education.
These two things…the Black Codes, which became the Jim Crow laws—in particular the denial of education and voting rights plus the system of sharecropping …set the tone for what would be the greatest and most ruinous part of the American way of life.
The result was a segment of the population bred and maintained for field work, backbreaking agricultural labor. Now the descendants of the Imported Americans, those who have no been able to overcome the monumental odds against them are reviled for exhibiting the very qualities that the plantation owners literally bred into them. The Imported Americans were human beings literally bought and sold, bred and directed towards manual work, back-breaking manual work in the fields…and nothing else. And they were treated in a manner more appropriate for domestic animals than for human beings.
The additional problem for the South and for the United States today is that some Southerners have never lost that cynical, cruel attitude towards African-Americans. Our political system of compromise and majority rule encouraged a far slower growth for a minority than should be expected. Consequently, with the old Southern Democrats, then the Dixiecrats and now the Republicans…one hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, racism still permeates everything in our political system. Racist votes hold up legislation on global warming. Racism dictates policy on women’s health and health care in general. Racism dictates military policy, makes precarious the social safety network and allows Billionaires and corporations to run state after state legislature.
Even more depressing, even alarming, is that many of the Congressmen from the South exhibit or even flaunt those tendencies in public and show it in their votes. If there is a way to punish the descendants of the original Imported Americans, they will find it. In fact, in some Southern states the poor laws that were abolished in Great Britain in the mid-19th Century astonishingly have returned to some Southern states.
After the period of the Republican Reconstruction of the South, about 1876, the Black Codes began to transform into a more frank, open and definitively racist form of legislation. The Southern Democrats had become stronger as their methods of intimidation and violence continued to win them more and more elections. Soon they introduced legislation to deprive Blacks of their civil rights and neither the Supreme Court nor the Republican Party prevented it. Southern violence never left the South and has never been appropriately punished.
Black Codes became the Jim Crow laws. Blacks could not own homes. They could not work or shop in certain stores. They were disenfranchised with the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. In Louisiana, for example, by 1900, the population of Black voters was reduced to slightly more than 5,000 and by 1910 was reduced to a mere 730, although Blacks were the majority of the population. In North Carolina, not a single Black voter was registered between 1896 and 1905
Blacks constituted absolute majorities of the populations in Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina and represented 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Obviously, with ex-slaves dominating the voting population, Southern Whites fought back outside the legal system.
While even some analysts of the slave era such as W.E. DuBois admit that there was some small amount of paternalism, a few good relationships between some masters and slaves, in the final analysis, it was still slavery. It was unthinkable to Southern Whites that the system could easily be reversed and slave become master through the simple power of the vote.
So the first legislation coming out of the South after the war said that only those who were literate before January 1, 1867 or whose father or grandfather had been eligible to vote before that date, were now eligible to vote. This is the origin of the term “grandfathered in” to an organization. Obviously, slaves did not have the vote prior to January 1, 1867 nor did free blacks in most cases, at least after the reforms that arose from the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831. Thus, the post-Civil War black codes almost completely voided the voting rights of African Americans.
This continues in the sub-culture of the South to this very day. Many African-Americans have been jailed for nothing more than owing a parking ticket, which grew to more fines and penalties and longer sentences. It is the latest version of Jim Crow returned to haunt American society. And it is happening because Ronald Reagan told the Segregationists that the Republican Party would become racist if they walked away from the Democratic Party and voted for him. And they did, and this is the result.
Nothing in our history has done more to reduce the quality of life for all Americans than this racist mind set blight, this mind set on the part of White Southerners. Based on the voting patterns for the Republicans, former Segregationists like Thurmond and Helms, anti-Civil Rights and intermittently themselves members of the KKK, the South has been turned over to a majority of bigots. With the poorest educational systems, the poorest people, the worst infrastructure, the lowest wages, the lowest standards of living, the worst health care and worst academic achievement, the least among us seem to be in the old Confederate states.
To this day, many Southern communities still fly the Confederate flag above that of our national flag. To many Americans this is flying the flag of a foreign country that made war on the United States. In the meantime, these people who honor the flag of traitors claim to be patriots. The reasons most Americans resent the Confederate flag is the same reason that the people of the German Republic would resent seeing the Nazi flag still raised over that of the Bundesrepublik.
Despite the many fine and exceptionally learned members of Southern society, the overall culture of the American Southeast is the laughing stock of the world. Southern Americans are the object of ridicule in countries, some of which are a tenth of our size but with double the literacy of American Southerners.
There are White Supremacists among Southern society who have discriminated against African-Americans for the last 300 years and show no signs of relenting in their mindless hatred of people with different colored skin. And those racists, far from being apologetic about enslaving a group of people for 300 years, on the contrary, doubled down on them, and denied them employment, education, medical attention, even enlistment in the military services. They have been beaten, tortured, shot, hanged and set on fire!
The outcome of racism has affected the entire history of the United States. From 1910 through 1930, 1.6 million African-Americans, largely uneducated and illiterate, migrated from the former slave states to the Northeast, Midwest and West. After a lull as a result of the Depression, a great post-World War II generation wave of migration took place between 1950 and 1970. This time, 6 million unskilled African-American workers left the old Confederate states for the North and West.
Only after the penal and discriminatory Jim Crow laws had been made illegal in the mid-20th Century through the work of Northern Liberals and Moderates and the political will of Lyndon Johnson did the migration of African-Americans begin to reverse somewhat. By the mid-1960s, Northern Blacks had become better educated and Southern Whites had become less educated.
Auto companies and others found good labor markets for unskilled workers in a South legally purged by Federal law of much of its danger and discrimination. Former Southern Blacks could return with far less fear of violence against them. Government now armed them with better ways of protecting themselves against persecution and outright violence.
What caused the great African American migrations from the South of the early and mid-1990s? Was it the Jim Crow laws and the culture of secon-class citizenship? Or was it something more? From 1892 through 1951 over 3,500 African-Americans were lynched in the United States, over 90% of them in the 14 former slave states. In 1892, for example, 161 African-Americans were lynched, almost one per month per former Confederate state.
We know from local contemporary reports that the Klu Klux Klan, beginning as early as 1866, was the greatest terrorist force in the United States, including having caused the largest recorded massacre on U.S. soil until “9/11.” Some may argue that the Mafia may have done more harm but the Mafia was known to commit criminal acts primarily against other Mafia or others who became involved with them in some illegal enterprise.
The attacks on Freedmen trying to vote began as early as 1866 to prevent voting by Freedmen and southern Republicans. Immediately prior to the elections of 1866, their actions resulted in as many as 2000 deaths in the Carolinas and elsewhere in the former Confederate states. The terrorism was effective. Once again in the Presidential election of November 1868 several thousand more were killed or injured in Lousiana within a few weeks of the election.
In St. Landry Parish where Republicans had a registered majority of 1,071, not one Republican voted in the fall election of 1868, The terrorist activity included the killing of than 150 black Republicans, including 13 Freedmen taken from jail and shot and more than two dozen more bodies that were later found in the woods.
In Arkansas, there were over 196 political murders in 1868. In Georgia, intimidation was a better tool. In Georgia, with over 9000 Black freedmen on the voting rolls, Grant received only 87 votes.
Lynching is not a synonymous term for hanging. Many African-Americans were recorded to have been lynched who were in reality shot, burned at the stake, castrated and otherwise dismembered until dead. Lynching is merely a name for a cruel combination of racist and sadistic murder.
Even in the most supposedly Liberal, Populist, open and free thinking communities, north and south, African-Americans have been educated in schools maintained from lower property taxes in lower-income neighborhoods and therefore less qualified, poorer equipped, and often simply lacking basics like heating and cooling. The lack of education, work skills and lower incomes of Black families also perpetuate a community of conflict and instability…not suited for educating those who need education most.
To understand the problems of the North and Black migration, one must think of a White family living on its own budget in 1910, suddenly asked—in a sense–to take on the budget of another family, black and totally without any education or social skills that matched White society at any level.
Consider then, that this White family was asked, in hard times, to contribute in taxes and social programs and often charitable programs but perhaps actually give up its income—a job–so that the Black family could survive. This did happen when Black unskilled labor was pitted against White labor by industrialists in the early part of the 20th Century in order to lower wage rates.
So coming out of the South’s laws against education and against any kind of social interaction with Whites, how surprised should we be that African-Americans inhabit the lowest rung on our social ladder? Think of a man living today in Chicago, the son of an unwed, high-school-dropout mother, who was the daughter of an uneducated, menial laborer, who was the son of a Black southern dirt farmer, deliberately and legally forbidden an education, who was the son of a totally illiterate sharecropper who had, in his youth, been a slave, the American-born son of an Imported American.
Of the 7.6 African-American immigrants who moved north, approximately 80% were either totally illiterate or had the most rudimentary education in rundown backwoods schools.
Some people think that when the Civil War ended, the South simply kept their guns and horses and returned to the farm or the plantation. But that was not the end to it. In 1867, the Federal Government, mindful that the former slaves in the South might feel retribution, and because of the poverty and destruction to Southern society from the war, established five separate military districts that governed many of the former Confederate states.
The Military Reconstruction Act divided the South into five military districts. Virginia became the first district, North Carolina and South Carolina the second district, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida the third district, Mississippi and Arkansas the fourth district, and Louisiana and Texas the fifth district. These territories were placed under the military control of the United States. The first military commanders had virtually unlimited power. The Military Reconstruction Act also required the southern states to elect new government officials.
There is no question that among the Radical Republicans of the immediate post-Civil War era, the intention of reforming governments in the South had a definite punitive aspect. The other objective was to establish governments more closely resembling those in the north where the new Reconstruction Amendments could be enforced.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment elaborated on the privileges of free men, having the same rights as all people in other states and having a right to the details of trial by jury, and having equal protection under the law (which became a tragic joke.) Finally, the 15th Amendment said that former slaves shall have the right to vote in exactly the same way as anyone else. (Except women, who could not vote until 1920.)
The Radical Republicans, those who had been abolitionists before the war and those who felt that the Confederacy was made up of traitors and needed to be brought back into a more democratic union with new rules…that group gained power in the elections of 1866 and they set up Republican governments in the South. These were bi-racial governments, often with elected officials from the North both Black and White. Many in the South resented and rebelled against it, making ex-slaves the particular target of their violent activity.
The states within the military districts began to return to the Black Codes. The Black Codes which had been around since the beginning of the 19th Century were designed to control the free black population, restricting their movement, forbidding them from bearing arms, becoming literate, speaking freely or testifying in court against Whites.
Several Supreme Court decisions moving power over voting and local law enforcement and prosecution to individual states began to erode the power of the Republican governments in the South. Meanwhile, the KKK under a variety of names continued to terrorize Blacks in the South, setting fire to homes and taking individual blacks from their homes in the dead of night to be hanged.
Slavery obviously was not new when it began in the South. On the contrary, slavery, practiced since the earliest days of organized groups, was in its waning phase. For many centuries before the Atlantic Slave Trade, Arab traders had brought African slaves out of Western Africa and across the Red Sea or by caravan into Egypt and beyond to be sold in markets all over the Middle East and as far as Asia.
Now the transatlantic trade would bring about 12 million Africans to various locations in the Americas during settlement of North and South America. Of those, about 37% went to Brazil. The U.S. imported about 600,000 African slaves, which grew to a population of about 4 million in the United States by 1860.
One of the myths that surrounds slavery is that of paternalism Was there a friendly master-servant relationship between slave-owners and slaves? There seems to be very little evidence that this happened with any regularity at all. In general, slaves were not treated kindly. In almost every documented narrative by an ex-slave there are stories of beatings, whippings, rape, restriction of food, physical restraints and even amputations.
Contemporary accounts from slaves interviewed or having written memoirs up to about 1930, indicate that the overwhelming memory is of subjugation. There are almost no accounts of a close relationship or generous spirit on the part of slave owners. The idea of a South abundantly populated with kinder, gentler masters than one would imagine is a fantasy supported by the sanitized versions of daily activities passed on by the plantation owners themselves.
While there may have been isolated incidents of affection and loyalty, this was not normally the case. In the end, it was slavery. Slaves were obliged to work long, hard hours in extreme conditions. Accounts from interviewed ex-slaves tell primarily of abuse and neglect. Families were often separated, and sold like farm animals to other owners in other states. Slavery was the kind of behavior that today is literally criminal activity for its inhumanity.
The only compassionate, witty and sophisticated pirates or slave owners are Hollywood pirates and slave owners. Slaveholders were ruthless men who cruelly beat, starved and occasionally worked people to death. They meted out exceptionally harsh punishments and they not only used violence to sustain their dominant position but also to intimidate and terrorize those whom they did not have under their control.
Having said that, the actual number of White Southerners owning slaves was less than 25 percent. Only one percent of White Southerners owned more than one hundred slaves. So, a plantation owner with 100 slaves could have an investment of about $80,000 which in today’s terms would be something in the millions. Eighty percent of slaves worked in the fields picking cotton. The balance worked in the fields on tobacco and other crops or worked in other functions either on a plantation or in a community.
When you look at the ante-bellum makeup of the Southern economy, it is pretty clear that the Civil War was not about states’ rights but about slavery. It was about the right of certain wealthy individuals within slave states to own and keep captive other men and women. It was not about the civilizing, conversion to Christianity and agricultural training of simple, contented Africans living in a pastoral setting. Slaves are not content and American slaves proved that with numerous rebellions throughout the South.
Between 1700 and the end of the Civil War, there were approximately 250 rebellions in the South, including ones by Nat Turner where over 60 whites and eventually hundreds of slaves were killed. There were other noted rebellions including ones by Gabriel Prosser in Virginian in 1800 and by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822. They were all violently put down with terrible retribution. None succeeded. The eventual action needed to free slaves came about with the South finally overstepping its bounds and seceding from the nation. Only an inevitable Civil War could–and did–free the slaves.
We continue to see parallels between the Old South and the New South. The current leaders of the old Dixiecrat Party, the Segregationists, the ones who wanted to continue the old Jim Crow laws are the current members of the Republican Party and their Right Wing members, the Republican Tea Party. This can be proved very simply.
In 1948, Harry Truman said that Civil Rights would be a part of the Democratic platform, after he had integrated the military. Strom Thurmond and the Segregationists, the so-called Dixiecrats, walked out of the convention. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson said that it was time to end Segregation, totally eliminate the old Jim Crow laws and move to a more forceful enforcement of all Civil Rights, including equal opportunity for jobs, education and daily life, such as abandoning the segregation of public facilities.
When, in the 1964 elections, the only states to vote for Barry Goldwater except for his home state, Arizona, were the four in the deep South, it became clear to Nixon’s campaign committee for 1968, that the way to win the South was to appeal to the racists. And that is what Nixon’s campaign did. The Southern states suddenly became swing states, giving Republicans just enough of the edge they needed to win.
In the Reagan elections and in the first Bush election, race and the appeals to former Segregationist Republicans became more sophisticated, with Lee Atwater devising code words that replaced the old and often embarrassing language used to appeal for votes to the real bigots. And today, the racism is often open and out in the public, with the old Revolutionary-style cartoonish African Tribal imagery on signs about the President. Racism is back and with the advent of the anonymous Internet, any racist bigot can post a web site to show his or her stupidity for all to see.
Racism as a political tool has not abated with the advent of an African-American President. Just as the Southern plantation owners wanted it all–money and power, today the Corporate CEOs and the stock-ownership class, the Billionaires, want to control society. They, like the old plantation owners want to control the labor force and bring near-slave wages to the American worker. And whom have they found to handle the legislation necessary to create this return to an Ante Bellum Society? The answer is obvious. The Southern Republicans.
The positions held by those corresponding to the old plantation owners are now held by the Right Wing Billionaires, people like the Koch Brothers, the owners of EXXON, and the CEOs of the health insurance companies. Of course, African-Americans are no longer slaves. But they may as well be. Here’s why.
In the U.S. today, these billionaires and their hired corporate managers, the richest one percent of households, owns 37% of all wealth. In addition to 37% of all wealth, the top 1% of Americans own two-thirds of all stock in all corporations. By purchasing politicians through political contributions made virtually unlimited by the Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, business legislation and tax legislation continue to increase this percentage of earning.
The result is an gigantic gap between the net worth of the rich and the poor. And who are the poor? The poorer you are the more likely it is that your skin will be black. For example, in 2009, a representative survey of American households indicated that the median net worth of the White family was $113,149 versus an almost unbelievable low of $5,677 for African-American families.
In 2010, household income for White families in 2010 was $54,620. For Black families, it was $32,068 and falling. We talk about unemployment but it is much worse than the numbers indicate. Unemployment is now 7.4% for whites and 12.6% for Blacks. But we know that is not the whole story. For example, the number of African-Americans who are unemployed for more than 99 weeks is twice that of Whites.
The story has not changed for African-Americans. They are always the last hired and the first let go. Our legislation has institutionalized their lack of competitive job training, education, and experience.
To astute political observers, words like “the poor” used by the Billionaire-pandering Republican House and Senate members have a clear connotation. They mean “Black” or “African-American.” Just as the Tea Party members will shut down government to pretend that they have some fiscal conscience, the Southern Republicans will shut down anti-poverty programs for Whites simply to shut them down against Blacks. For example, they have voted to cut back food stamps for those without jobs and who cannot find jobs in a society which now has 5 applicants for every job opening.
But this is nothing new. While the country did free the Imported Americans after the Civil War, they were never given the equal treatment that they expected under the 14th Amendment. In the South, “states rights” meant that state governments, according to a ruling by the Supreme Court, had the right to set certain rules, like those for voting laws. So the Jim Crow laws could prevent blacks from voting, from attending White schools, from attending state universities, and from drinking or eating with white people.
It was not until 1954 that these rules were struck down and until states were told by the Supreme Court that they must follow federal law when it superseded state law.
When legal methods went against the South, from the very beginning, 1866, organizations like the Red Shirts and the White League and the Klu Klux Klan took matters into their own hands. The Civil War devastated the South financially, its infrastructure totally destroyed. But there were plenty of men with guns and military training and time on their hands.
By 1866, bands of armed ex-Confederate soldiers already roamed the south, killing blacks and some members of the Republican Party, who had been sent south to set up Republican governments, to assure fair treatment of the ex-slaves, the Freedmen. Republicans who had won the post-war elections, took over the South by force, with union troops that were stationed in the South until 1876.
The anecdotal reporting of killings and hangings and shootings, and massacres large and small of African-Americans in the South in the years after the war is astonishing. There were some more prominent and less deniable incidents such as the murders of several hundred freedmen in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, and the recorded murders of over 1,000 freedmen in only six months of 1868 in Louisiana. But the daily intimidations, beatings, and occasional late-night cross-burnings and even whipping of innocent men is beyond our understanding.
The Colfax Massacre in Louisiana was one such serious occasion. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1872 a band of White Democratic where a white Democratic militia murdered over 100 Black Freedmen who were Republican elected officials. With rifles and a cannon, White Democratic representatives overwhelmed the Grant Parish courthouse and took over 50 black Freedmen prisoner whom they later murdered. It is known that perhaps more than 150 Freedmen in all were killed.
This incident is not to be confused with the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, where 34 Freedmen were killed and more than 40 wounded. Nor should it be confused with the 1081 political murders of Freedmen that took place at various times leading up to the elections of 1868.
From 1870 through 1876, African-Americans could vote and could hold office. During that period, there were only 2 African-American Senators and 15 African-American Congressmen sent to Washington. Hardly a tidal wave of Freedmen. The Compromise of 1876 sent all Union troops protecting freedmen back North. That virtually ended elections of Freedmen to national office for 100 years.
There were more freedmen in state legislatures, but that was because they had not yet been legislated out of voting and because there were still communities where freedmen were the sole ethnic group or where they made up the overwhelming majority.
After Reconstruction and the devastation of the South, share cropping bound people to the land and existence was bitter and poor. The animosity between poor Blacks and poor Whites intensified and the laws became more and more restrictive on Blacks.
The period of what the South called “Redemption,” began after Reconstruction, when Southern White Democrats reclaimed local government from the Republicans, many of whom had come from the North and others who were southern Republicans. The Klu Klux Klan continued, but it became less regularly active as state legislatures simply wrote Blacks out of the equation.
African-Americans were obliged to pay polling taxes, which they did not have and pass literacy tests which they could not because they not only had no schools but it was illegal for them to go to school in most areas. By 1903 in Alabama, of 181,000 African-Americans only 2,980 could register, even though there were an identified 74,000 African-Americans who, for a variety of reasons could be proven literate.
Blacks were free but still indentured. Laws concerning vagrancy and making it illegal to be jobless in many Southern states meant that Blacks had to keep their jobs. Keeping their jobs often meant going into debt to business owners, from which they effectively never broke free, or working for whatever wages were offered.
The turn of the century saw the African American as largely uneducated, landless sharecroppers. While the second half of the 20th Century would see major improvements in voting rights, job opportunities, social services and particularly in higher education, the first half of the 20th Century was not much different from the latter part of the 19th Century.
African-Americans, still subject to degrading Jim Crow laws, began to migrate North. In 1900, over 90% of all African-Americans still lived in the South. By 1930, one-third had moved North and West. By 1990, only half of all Southern Blacks still lived in the South.
Black migration to the North, both because it was new and because there were fewer Blacks in neighborhoods, went relatively smoothly, or at least without much disturbance, until the Depression. At that point, with one of every four workers out of a job, and the fact that African-Americans had to accept only about 40% of White salaries, tensions arose, leading to conflicts over employment and housing. Consequently, the North proved less welcoming than we like to imagine.
There were virtually no Blacks in executive positions, few in supervisory positions and, for some time, none in the major labor unions. They were deliberately excluded. In 1939, the average African-American who was employed at all made only about $530 annually compared to the White employee’s $1270.
When African-Americans moved North, much the same as other immigrants, they clustered together in their own neighborhoods like New York City’s Harlem, Boston’s Roxbury, Detroit’s East Side Black Bottom and Chicago’s South Side Bronzville neighborhoods.
By the late 1940s Blacks began more frequently challenge some of the old “Jim Crow” laws. Tensions grew in the South. The NAACP and ACLU and some religious groups became involved. In 1964 and 1965, in the era of sympathetic feelings after the death of President Kennedy, Lydon Johnson was able to push through civil rights and voting rights legislation that would substantially strengthen anti-discrimination laws.
The Black community finally began to gain some political power. But it was short-lived.
(To be continued….)