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Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

For years there was a long-running struggle in Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove a 26-foot-high statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park. On August 12, 2017, during a Unite the Right rally, clashes broke out between supporters of the statue, who marched under Confederate flags, and peaceful counter-protesters. During the rally, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others were injured when a car was deliberately driven into the crowd. That statue is one of 1,700 Confederate monuments in the U.S.

In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, demands to remove Confederate statues and other symbols has grown rapidly.

Some recent attempts at cleansing our body politic of the Confederacy have been half-hearted and opportunistic. For example, a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis stood for generations in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort. In June it was removed with much fanfare with Gov. Andy Beshear standing front and center. What happened to it? Was it taken to a dump? No. It was simply given a new home at the state historic site where Davis was born.

On the other hand, a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike was burned to the ground by protestors in Washington DC on Juneteenth.

Out west, the University of Nevada Las Vegas removed its Hey Reb statue and several thousand people signed a petition calling for the further action–the retirement of the school’s Johnny Reb mascot.

Following a petition campaign that garnered over 30,000 signatures, the Montgomery, Alabama school board voted on July 12 to change the names of three high schools named after Confederate leaders. On June 3, Jefferson Davis’s birthday (a state holiday), protestors removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from in front of the high school that was named for him. The statue faced north, supposedly to be on the lookout for enemies.

The nickname for the teams of Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley in Southern California was, until very recently, the Rebels. It’s been changed. After 56 years, supported by 5400 signatures on a petition, Quartz Hill also ditched its Johnny Rebel mascot. The school used to hand out Confederate flags at games and assemblies. Just a harmless cultural relic? It was no coincidence that the Department of Justice issued a finding  that local officials had worked to drive blacks out of public housing in the Quartz Hill area.

It’s not just statues and schools that are under the microscope. There are several giant redwood trees in central California that are named after Confederate figures, most notably the General Lee, the world’s fifth largest sequoia. It recently came to light that the National Park Service has quietly removed the names of the trees from its promotional literature.

As part of a daily feature called “Today in History,” in June the Associated Press supplied newspapers across the country with a quotation from Jefferson Davis: “Never be haughty to the humble; never be humble to the haughty.”

These words of Davis appeared in more than two dozen newspapers amid worldwide protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Davis quote appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during a week when that paper told a black reporter that she would not be assigned to cover protests and assigned a black photojournalist to photograph the reopenings of a church and an ice-cream parlor instead of the demonstrations he had been scheduled to shoot.

After receiving many objections, the Associated Press apologized for running the quote.

Although there is a growing trend to separate from the Confederacy’s Lost Cause, not everyone wants to disassociate from slavery’s legacy. The northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg, named after Confederate general Braxton Bragg, refused to change its name despite a widespread local movement to make that happen.

In 2005, the American Film Institute released a list of America’s Greatest Movies, chosen by a “blue ribbon panel” of 1,500 Hollywood insiders. Number 44 on the list was Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths’ ode to the Confederacy and the Klan.

Douglas Southall Freeman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, described his subject as “one of a small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved.”

Until recently, there were stained glass windows devoted to Confederate leaders at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were depicted deep in prayer while the Confederate battle flag flew overhead.

Who was Robert E. Lee? He was the General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, the supreme military leader in a war in which one in three households in Lee’s supposedly beloved South lost at least one family member.

Lee was also a successful investor in banks and railroads and he owned two hundred slaves. According to his former slave Wesley Norris, Lee frequently egged on his overseers as they whipped Lee’s slaves. There are 58 schools in the United States named after Robert E. Lee. Despite the objections of some that removing Confederate symbols is “erasing history,” the fact is that not one of those schools teaches its students about the true history of

The slave system that Lee built his wealth upon was described accurately in a letter written before the Civil War from the Mexican general Teran in Texas to his superiors in Mexico City. “They extract their teeth,” Teran wrote, “set the dogs on them to tear them to pieces, the most lenient slave owner is he who flogs his slaves.”

And yet we still hear much talk about the noble traditions of “southern institutions” and about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. But if the issue is merely Southern pride, why aren’t the more than one hundred thousand Southern whites and the hundreds of thousands of Southern slaves who fought for the Union honored? The Confederacy represents only one Southern institution: the forced breeding and sale of human beings who were worked to death for the benefit of wealthy slave owners.

Underlying the Confederacy and the various ways it is still celebrated is the idea that all Southern whites are part of an indivisible unit. Yet a closer look at history shows there have always been two white Souths. Before the civil war, slave owners forcefully ended the traditional practice of the poor white population’s use of land in common for raising food and livestock. During the Civil War, there were massive desertions of whites from the Confederate army while the soldiers’ wives led bread riots across the South. After the Civil War, there were six million white sharecroppers barely surviving on the land along with five million black sharecroppers. The Confederate flag represents only one side of these unequal equations—the Southern one percent.

Keri Leigh Merritt immersed herself in everything from court records to contemporary newspaper accounts to write her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, which clearly shows that the white South was anything but united. Merritt found massive and extreme white poverty in the run-up to the Civil War (up to a third of the Southern white population), a police state specifically designed to keep it that way, and a degree of unity between a section of the white poor and black slaves. Masterless Men gives the lie to the concept of the South as an idyllic rural retreat, where everyone knew their place and was happy to be there. The South was an exceptionally brutal class society and it was not defined solely by color.

“On the eve of secession,” Merritt writes, “slaveholders continued to jail poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals for their labor to the highest bidder.”

The post-Civil War vagrancy laws that were later used to compel the labor of blacks were first developed before the Civil War to control poor whites. The same was true of the South’s infamous penitentiary system.  “The guardhouses and jails in every county seat, town, and city were built with a main purpose to deprive troublesome or suspicious poor whites of their liberty.”

Merritt documents how poor white children were forcibly “bound over” to work as unpaid apprentices while white adults without means were often sold at court.

Yet it was the entry of the plantation slaves into the Civil War which turned the tide and spurred the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This may have freed the slaves but slavery has remained as the time-released poison pill of American history. We have not yet escaped its legacy.

The American Slave Coast, an epic history by Ned and Constance Sublette, details many of the connections between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.  In fact, if you substitute the words “financial capitalism” for “antebellum slavery” in the book’s next-to-last paragraph, you will have an accurate description of America in 2020.

“Antebellum slavery required a complex of social, legal, financial, and political institutions structured to maximize profits that flowed only to a small elite, while leaving the rest of the population poor….It existed at the cost of everything else in society, including the most basic notions of humanity.”

The exceptional violence that defines the United States has its roots in slave patrols and wars to acquire slave territory. Waterboarding and other torture techniques flow from the savagery visited upon slaves to wring out every ounce of profit. In 1830, future president James Polk took to the floor of the House to sing the praises of the lash, just as members of Congress today rhapsodize about drone strikes and bombing runs.

The reduction of science to the self-interested gibberish of powerful elites did not begin with COVID-19, it began with slavery, as America’s most prominent universities promoted a pseudoscience of racial hierarchy. Fast forward to 1966, when the tobacco industry, which has its roots in the unpaid labor of countless slaves, gave the American Medical Association twenty million dollars. Then the AMA dutifully produced a study claiming that smoking was not a health hazard. In 2020, Orange County (California) Chief Public Health Officer Nicole Quick was driven from office by death threats for insisting that social distancing and masks were scientifically necessary for safety.

The ongoing surge of climate change denial finds its organizational center in the states of the Confederacy. North Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee have all passed bills that assert that climate change isn’t real.

Although one is alive and one is dead, both Donald Trump and Robert E. Lee both play a similar role as the populist hero, promoting the absurd idea that the common people have friends in high places. Pliant political entities and the media sow this confusion in order to prevent the unity of those who truly do have fundamental interests in common.

As the rapper Murs put it in a 2017 video: “I know the majority of Southerners weren’t slave owners and that they got the raw end of the Industrial Revolution and a whole lot of other shit, but so did we. We’ve got to get rid of that flag. It’s literally just a piece of fabric dividing us.”

The Confederate flag divides us not simply by promoting racism, but by reinforcing the idea that blacks and whites have fundamentally different interests. That is not true. For example, recent exhaustive studies of evictions show that of the 900,000 eviction judgments issued in 2016,  the percentage among black households is twice as high as for whites, which is inevitable given the legacy of slavery.  But in raw numbers, twice as many white households have been evicted. Numbers and ratios aside, there is clearly a basis for unity regardless of race. Some of the strongest roots for this coming together are in the states of the former Confederacy.

Nine out of the ten cities with the highest eviction rates are in the Deep South. The city with the highest rate of evictions is North Charleston, South Carolina, which is eight miles from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. The city with the second highest number of evictions is Richmond, VA, the former Confederate capitol.

Can rooting out the names, signs and symbols of the Confederacy, which are such a part of our national fabric, help build unity in order to enable deeper, structural change? There is skepticism about that. During the fight over changing the name of Fort Bragg, California, Javier Silva of the Sherwood Valley Pomo Indian tribe said they didn’t want to change the name because it would only be an empty gesture. Similar sentiments have been expressed by many across the country.

All the gestures will remain empty unless they are filled with education and with organization based on the lessons learned. The Confederacy represented business interests, not racial interests. Yet its underlying assumption that all white people have common interests continues to plague our country, in the North as well as in the South, causing people to look at enemies as friends and potential friends as enemies. The true class nature of the Confederacy and the slave South needs to be recognized because it is still with us.