Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
King describes an old con: sell bigotry, and deliver more aristocracy (or plutocracy, or some other form of entrenched power). The moneyed, white conservatives making the pitch and their poorer marks were primarily in the Democratic Party until the 1960s, but then with Nixon's Southern strategy, the parties realigned and these constituencies became Republican (perhaps the most famous figure being Strom Thurmond). Almost every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon has employed some version of the Southern strategy and sold bigotry to acquire power (sometimes successfully). Another key lie has been that the New Deal was a horrible failure, but Reaganomics have been a stunning success for all Americans and not just a select few as intended. (Conservative economic policies arrive with different names, including supply-side economics, but can also simply be called business as usual, especially when it comes to bipartisan Wall Street corruption.) Economic conservatism and social conservatism don't always coexist, but they fit together easily, and the latter characteristically serves the former.
The film Selma depicts disturbing incidents in the past, but it's also troubling for contemporary audiences aware of new and ongoing efforts to suppress the vote, almost entirely coming from conservatives and/or Republicans, and almost entirely targeting the poor, minorities, and other likely Democratic constituencies. (The issue of voting rights remains a major difference between the parties.) The Shelby County v. Holder (2013) decision is probably the most alarming and unconscionable move yet. It's disconcerting to see how past progress is being steadily and deliberately eroded.
All this brought to mind Chris Rock's interview late last year with Frank Rich (whose questions and comments are in bold). Here's the exchange I found most striking:
When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
Right. It’s ridiculous.
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?
Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
Meanwhile, returning to King, later in the same speech, he said:
And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.
It's hard to disagree with that, and it remains a worthy cause, but it's also important to note that an entire industry exists to undermine such friendship and understanding. It's not a surprise that many of the same entities that deny climate change, oppose corporate oversight, push for lower taxes on the wealthy and oppose raising the minimum wage also support voting suppression. Some prominent conservatives have, without irony, argued that the the rich should get more votes and people who doesn't pay income tax shouldn't get to vote (never mind all the other taxes they pay). Likewise, other conservatives have praised old systems that reserved voting for property owners (they're usually politic enough to drop the "white man" requirement).
Just as progress isn't won without a fight, sadly, some people will seek to undo it, and progress can be reversed without sustained effort to support it.
(A version of this piece is posted at Hullabaloo.)