“Slave owners and white racist were afraid that the world they had always known was slipping away from them. Fear was a great motivator—fear of change, fear of losing power, fear of being that they were wrong. The roots of white anxiety over threats to enslavement and to legalize white supremacy ran deep.”
John Meacham, And There was Light. Random House, 2022, page 55.
Reading this passage last night stunned me for a moment. A flurry of thoughts rushed all at once, promptly turning to one central truth; racial dynamics in America have not changed. Not changed at all.
Meacham’s book, a biography of Lincoln, focuses on the shaping events that made Lincoln arguably America’s greatest President. However, those same formative circumstances left Southern slaveholders angry, and dangerous. This long-running rancor ultimately resulted in civil war, and Lincoln’s 1865 murder.
The Missouri Compromise triggered the first alarm below the Mason-Dixon Line. That slavery could be limited through any federal legislative act left the slave power touchy and suspicious. Sensitive to criticism, slave owners (as Mr. Meacham pointed out), viewed opposition as a dishonorable insult. Prior to the Civil War Congressman and Senators dueled, a Senator suffered a severe beating on the Senate floor by a South Carolina Congressman. Tension in both chambers lead to the adoption of a “gag rule” that prohibited any discussion of slavery in Congress.
As Northern abolitionists grew more emboldened, Southerners grew more militant. War was only a matter of time. Any abolitionists tracts, or books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were discarded by local postal officials. Churches split. Southern Methodist, Southern Baptists are two examples indicating the fraying of North and South.
After the war, into the Reconstruction years Freedmen found protection through Yankee bayonets stationed in Reconstruction zones. Unrepentant Southern whites pushed back with terror. The Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and the White League rode through the night spreading fear and lynching freedman who dared to claim the blessings of freedom.
Eventually the Northern public grew weary of protecting freedmen, and Union occupiers were pulled out of the region. White power was redeemed, the South closed in upon itself.
Contrasting the 21st Century to the 19th provides strikingly similar dynamics. In 2008 Barack Obama became 44th President of the United States, and white power interests again lost their minds.
It appeared America had turned a corner in race relations, but those appearances deceived. Senator Mitch McConnell began by decreeing the GOP would not work with the new president, followed by the sunsetting a clause in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That provision, signed by Lyndon Johnson protected black voters from discrimination at the polls. Today voters now have to prove they were slighted.
Apparently these white supremacist again see their alpha-position slipping away, and they too, are touchy and dangerous. The names have changed, but not the mission. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, neo-Nazi’s, and Christian Nationalists, see themselves as the last bastion against Americans of color, of women’s rights, and LGBQT citizens.
Again these thugs are thin skinned and hateful. This crowd championed an avowed racist for president, and still, today hold him as a white messiah. The symptoms are all there, fear of a changing America, fear of being wrong in their beliefs, fearful of losing control.
White supremacy as a social disorder manifests predictably. This country has been down this road before. America gave up law enforcement in 1877 due to lack of interest, the myth of white supremacy is just that, a myth. This land was made for your and me.
The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. Harry Truman
Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. She has penned two stage plays, “Clay,” exploring the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By the Ears,” a study of racism in America.