March 16, 2007

Racial Cleansing, Sundown Towns and White Supremacy

As part of an ongoing effort to call attention to the publication of The Cost of Privilege, a splendid contribution to the struggle in the US, I will be blogging a bunch, I hope, about white supremacy and white privilege in the next few weeks.

This post was triggered by an announcement of another new book, entitled Buried In The Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Eliot Jaspin. A dramatic excerpt from a plug for the book will give you the idea. Jaspin, who won a Pulitzer for use of computers in reporting for the Cox newspaper group, was visiting a small Arkansas town and found some horrific relics of slavery in the burg's little history museum:

I had been in the area for several days. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that, in all the time I had been there, I had not seen a single African-American. Yet here in front of me was proof that at one time blacks had lived here. Were they still here? If not, when had they left and why? I walked out of the museum with the questions nagging me.

Over the next few days as I drove to my different appointments, I kept searching for even one black face. Tourism was one of the pillars of the local economy and along the main roads were hotels, restaurants and concert halls for country music fans. The people shopping in the stores were white. The people behind the counters were white. The people working in the motels were white. I began checking the people in cars as they passed. All white.

On my last day, I finally asked the person I was interviewing if there were any blacks in the area. “Oh no,” she said, “The Klan keeps them out.”

Now this interested me, not least because of the present tense in this last quote--"keeps them out." I haven't read Jaspin's book, but comments I've seen indicate that it is very thorough and detailed, documenting the systematic driving of Black people out of large sections of this country by lynch terror. I hope to get a review copy, to see how it handles the situation now.

Many of these areas remain lily white to this day. In fact, when Jaspin completed five years of research by writing a 16 part series for the Cox group, their flagship paper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution wouldn't publish it. It laid bare the truth about places like suburban Forsyth County, the whitest in Georgia, whose racism the AJC had been prettying up for decades. The debate over the series was covered by Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative weekly.

Overall, though, my impression is that Eliot Jaspin concentrates on the period from the end of Reconstruction through the 20s when a massive wave of ethnic cleansing took place:

I made a list of four or five counties that seemed to be the most suspicious and went to the Library of Congress. By cross checking my list with the New York Times Index for the decade when each collapse occurred, I found the dates when there had been stories written about some of the counties. I mounted a microfilm reel and turned the crank. As I fiddled with the focus in the dark of the library’s microfilm room, a headline appeared: “ALL NEGROES DRIVEN FROM INDIANA TOWN.”

The seven-paragraph story was to the point. “Negroes began leaving this mining town early this afternoon, following the warning issued by white residents to be out of town by 7 o’clock to night...”

Jaspin, as many readers will recognize, is working on terrain others have also researched. The best known work on the topic is by a dude named James Loewen, whose Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong have gotten a lot of well-deserved play among progressives. A couple of years ago he wrote Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, about hundreds of towns, mainly Northern and Western, like Pekin, Illinois with actual signs at the town line reading "Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set On You Here."

Loewen's superb website has a Sundown Towns section with some excerpts, interviews, practical research tips and, best of all, some modern day use of his research. Check out his denunciation of Honda's decision to build a new plant in Greensburg, Indiana, a town lovingly described by All Things Considered on National Public Radio as a place that "could be a movie set for an ideal American small town." Always providing that your ideal is white.

In 1906, Greensburg's white residents drove out most of its black population. By 1960, the entire county, which had boasted 164 African American residents in 1890, was down to just three, all female. In the 2000 census, Greensburg still had only two black or interracial households among 10,260 residents.

He concludes:

Surely Honda owes the nation -- and not just African Americans -- a statement telling why it chose Greensburg, despite (or because of?) Greensburg's racial past. Honda should also disclose how it plans to make its workforce look like America while locating in a town that for many decades kept out Afro-America.

Another work I have only just discovered is a self-published work by Monica Davis entitled Land, Legacy and Lynching: Building the Future in Black America--she also refers to it as Lynching for Profit. The teaser she posted on the order form for her book at suggests she been actively involved in the ongoing struggle to defend the remaining Black-owned farmland in this country. Her thumbnail description reflects a materialist approach emphasizing what Marx called "primitive accumulation," i.e. piracy, as a key motive for this ethnic cleansing:

A century ago, the segregated South had a deep secret--black farmers owned the majority of farmland in the region. Then came the 1910 Census results along with an organized effort to drive black farmers off the land. Through lynching and intimidation, and predatory use of federal farm loan programs, hundreds of thousands of black farmers, 90% of African-American farmers, were driven from the land through a 60 year orgy of lynching, murder, intimidation and theft. Many found refuge in factory towns and became middle class through factory work, especially in the auto industry. Others gathered in segregated ghettos in the nation's urban hell holes and continue to fuel the nation's prisons.

This is more than a little reminiscent of the work done by pioneering feminist historians on the role of appropriation in the great European witch scares.

I hope to continue to blog about this theme in an upcoming post, talking about what all this means today--for the fight against white privilege and white supremacy, for the struggle for reparations for the Black Nation, and for the all the battles of people of color in the belly of the beast. Don't let that keep you from commenting now though.

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