You don’t have to look around for a Confederate flag to know that the old battle cry of “states’ rights” is here again. This time, it’s not about the “right” to keep the races separate. It’s about the “right” to vote for a child molester. But understanding why it’s come to this takes some figuring.
What I’d like you to do is this: try to imagine for a moment living in a small town in the deep South — a town like, say, Gadsden, Alabama — surrounded by piney woods and sandy soil, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business. A lot of industry already moved offshore, to countries where they can pay workers even less than the right-to-work pittance they paid in Gadsden. Left behind are strip malls, Pizza Huts, Krispy Kremes, muffler shops, tire retailers, Dairy Queens, women selling Mary Kay cosmetics to each other.
Over there on Lewis Road you’ll find an old red barn set up as a horseshoeing business, with a long-dead rusted flat-bed truck up on blocks, and across the one lane black-top road, a 50-by-12 trailer home with peeling paint and an above-ground pool right next door to a ranch-style house with aluminum siding that has three cars parked on the gravel drive out front. Drive a little further, and you’ll find another ranch-style house with aluminum siding, and another, and another, and a truly amazing number of pick-up trucks parked in driveways in various states of disassembly or repair. And churches — lots and lots of churches — New Faith Community Church, and Faith Baptist Church, and Full Gospel Tabernacle, and James Memorial Baptist Church, just across the street from the Dollar General, and the Living Truth Christian Center, which is not far from the St. Paul Overcoming Church of God, which is just down Glenwood Avenue from Paden Baptist Church.
The small Southern town we’re imagining — say, a place like Gadsden, Alabama — has a population that is 34 percent black and 62 percent white, so it’s easy to imagine yourself as a citizen of either race. Now what I’d like you to do is imagine that you are one of the black citizens, and living in Gadsden, Alabama you hear this phrase over and over and over: our blacks. Let me say it again: our blacks. You also hear our negroes, and our ni**ers, but because Gadsden is under somewhat of a national spotlight and people are endeavoring to be seen as, ahem, inclusive, let’s have you imagine hearing from the mouths of your fellow citizens who are white is that you are one of our blacks.
Now what I’d like you to do is stop imagining, because that’s what you’ll actually hear in Gadsden, Alabama and towns like it all over the deep South. I know, because I’ve been there, and I’ve lived there, and years ago, I grew up there. I’ve been to Gadsden, and I’ve been to towns like it elsewhere in Alabama, and over in Mississippi, and down in Louisiana and up in Arkansas and Tennessee, too. You’ll be talking to somebody as I was some years ago when I passed through Fort Smith Arkansas — a guy sitting next to me at breakfast, to be exact — and you’ll hear them tell you that our blacks are different than the ones in Little Rock, or you’ll hear them say our blacks keep to themselves, or they’ll tell you that our blacks are good people, God fearing people. Because, you know, we’re not talking about their blacks, we’re talking about our blacks, and we know how to deal with blacks around here.
Or maybe you’ll be out at a dirt track in rural Tennessee, a place they nicknamed “Ducktona” because it’s close to the Duck River, and you’ll be watching late model race cars go round and round. And between races, when the noise of the un-muffled race cars isn’t deafening, you’ll hear someone sitting in front of you in the virtually all-white stands talking to his buddy, and he’ll say, well, our blacks aren’t like that, because they know their place around here. Or you’ll be in Louisiana south of Lafayette at a duck camp, which is to say, a place in the deep bayous where you go duck hunting, and you’ll be sitting in a wood-framed plywood bar set up on stilts so it won’t flood during hurricanes, and you’ll be listening to two fellow duck hunters, and one of them is telling the other that our blacks can’t be relied on anymore because they’ve been fed a whole load of bullshit by the goddamned Democrats, and now they don’t want to work, and that’s why we’ve got all these Mexicans and Cambodians coming in, because at least they’ll take the jobs in the chicken plants, and goddamnit, we’ve got to teach our blacks a lesson.
I’ve heard all of it, and I’ve heard worse, and I know where the phrase our blacks comes from. It comes from slavery, because the ancestors of the black people they’re talking about were actually owned by the ancestors of the people doing the talking, back when the phrase they used was our slaves. If their ancestors weren’t slave owners, some of them fought in the Civil War in defense of the right of plantation owners and other more wealthy Southern gentry to own slaves. We know this because Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, declared as much in his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered in 1861 soon after the secession from the Union by Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Mr. Stephens, a former congressman from Georgia, was good enough to tell us that the newly formed Confederacy was “founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Of course as soon as they lost the war, Stephens and virtually every other so-called “leader” in the deep South dropped this rationale for the Confederacy and the reason they fought the Civil War in favor of a new “cause,” that of the sovereignty of the South and the right of self-government. And they would spend the next 150 years — in fact, right up until the present day — creating and maintaining the fiction that slavery had nothing to do with their “noble cause,” which they have maintained variously over the years was “states’ rights,” and their “honor,” and of course, the current favorite, their “heritage.” They would go on to erect more than 1,500 memorials to the Confederacy and its “heroes” all over the South in prominent locations, at least 718 of which are statues and monuments.
It gets worse. They also named roads and public plazas all over the South for their “heroes,” the generals who fought for slavery during the Civil War. Right there in downtown Gadsden is Forrest Avenue, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who led his army in battles including the battles of Franklin and Nashville. Before the war, Forrest was a wealthy plantation owner and slave trader. After the war, he was an early member of the KKK and led midnight raids and whippings of black citizens in a movement to keep them from voting during Reconstruction after the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
You practically can’t turn around in Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama without seeing something named after a Confederate general — a road, a courthouse, a municipal building, a park. And they kept it up. I’ve been through parts of Alabama and Mississippi where highways and buildings are named for sheriffs and local politicians who were infamous during the Civil Rights era for their opposition to voting rights for black Americans. Remember all those fights in the South over textbooks, most famously the ones on the Texas Board of Education every few years over how the history books should be written? What do you think those rights have been over? You’ve got it. They’re sick and tired down there about how all the history textbooks are running down the founding fathers of the Confederacy and talking about “negative stuff” like slavery and such. Why, the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery! It’s was fought over states’ rights!
What does all of this amount to? Putting our blacks in their place, that’s what. Every time they turn around, black citizens of those Southern states are being reminded who is boss. They’re being told they’re our blacks, because the Southern political leadership can shove the legacy of slavery in their faces, even while they’re denying it in the schools and history books with invented rationales for the Civil War. The maintenance of this fiction, backed up by the arrogant notion that they didn’t want “outsiders” coming in and telling them how to write their laws and run their elections, was the heart and soul of the Jim Crow era, the heart and soul of the massive opposition to integration and the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960’s.
And now it is the beating heart and soul of opposition in the South to same-sex marriage, to the rights of transgendered people, even to the right to vote in general. Shelby County v. Holder, the case which defenestrated the Voting Rights Act, originated one county over from Etowah County. Gadsden is its county seat.
There is a connective tissue between Gadsden, Alabama; Selma, Alabama; Philadelphia, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; and even now Charlottesville, Virginia, where Nazis and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s KKK marched last summer in opposition to taking down Confederate statues. They’re saying over and over again, in one way or another: we don’t want outsiders telling us what to do with our blacks. We don’t want to be told who gets to go in our public restrooms. We don’t want to be told that we shouldn’t vote for a man just because he’s a child molester. It’s about our right to self-govern, our right to vote for whoever the hell we want to!
We are in a new Civil War. They voted for plenty of guys who put on white hoods and burned crosses and more than a few who put nooses around the necks of some of “their” blacks. It’s about states’ rights all over again. Once it was about the “right” to own slaves. Now it’s about the “right” to vote for a redneck child molester by the name of Roy Moore.
Which way do you think they’ll vote on December 12?