Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.

The Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Automatically Belong To You

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John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being beaten, 1961

A new civil rights museum is about to open in Mississippi, and President Trump is planning to attend. That this would be taken as an affront and would cause veterans of the movement to boycott the event ought to have been obvious. Trump is an opponent of what the civil rights movement stood for. When John Lewis duly announced today that he will not attend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.

Does Sanders know Lewis led SNCC? Does she know about Bloody Sunday? Does she care? Does she know that Lewis has taken criticism over the years for his willingness to sit down with white segregationists who claimed to be repentant? John Lewis, of all people, has shown himself willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them. He would probably do the same for Trump. But repentance has to come first.

It is impossible for Trump to honor the movement without first repenting of his open and flagrant racism. Unless he does so, he’s making a mockery of the movement.

If the absurdity of the administration’s position isn’t immediately obvious, it’s only because of the general ignorance the American public has about the civil rights movement.

This is a good occasion to return to my article on white memories of the civil rights movement, published this year in History & Memory. In that piece, I show how white Americans came to mythologize white resistance to the civil rights movement as inherently violent, extremist, and ultimately vanquished. Instead of grappling with the way opponents of the civil rights movement helped create “colorblind” America, white Americans began to believe there was a vast distance between the contemporary United States and the bad old days of the 1960s. This mythology has proven so strong that even when President Trump actively promotes racism many Americans are unable to accept the plain historical meaning of what he is doing.

But others know better, as the Washington Post reported today:

JACKSON, Miss. — The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”

Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses, and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August last year.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.

“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”

Trump supporters: the civil rights movement doesn’t belong to you! Have the courage of your convictions. The rest of us already see where you’re coming from. Time to be honest with yourself.

Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

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A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.


*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.

Keep Your Eye on the Justice Department

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An important intellectual call to arms during the last great nativist reaction. 1920.

The disgraceful confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general continues to fly under the radar. The Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen reminds us what is at stake:

Just as the nation is turning away from mass incarceration, and discovering that crime rates can go down along with incarceration rates, Attorney General Sessions is poised to reverse course. He already made it clear with his opposition to bipartisan sentencing reform last year that he has little compassion or empathy for the families affected by the enforcement of unduly harsh sentencing laws. He has made this clear also with his adamant and relentless opposition to presidential clemency, even in cases of manifest injustice that shocks the conscience. A whole new generation of men and women, and their families, will be doomed to unreasonably long prison terms.

Even as he revs up the engine of mass incarceration, Sessions won’t be an attorney general who emphasizes the need to identify and rectify wrongful convictions. He will not fight for the right of criminal defendants to be ably represented in court so that fewer wrongful convictions occur in the first place. He won’t be an attorney general who questions the validity of forensic evidence, even when experts conclude that its reliability and accuracy is dubious. There are two types of prosecutors in the world: Those who care  only about convictions, and those who take a broader view of justice. Sessions has made it clear, both in Alabama and on Capitol Hill, that he is the first type of prosecutor.

Sessions’s confirmation hearing reminded us that he will be an attorney general for vote suppressors and perpetrators of the voter fraud myth. Under the guise of protecting democracy from a threat that does not exist, he will be an attorney general who allows more jurisdictions to enact voting restrictions that make it harder, or impossible, for the elderly, the poor, and citizens of color to cast a valid ballot. He will be an attorney general who looks for excuses not to file aggressive litigation designed to protect voting rights. He will be an attorney general who is as feckless in this area of the job as he has shown to be fearless in prosecuting dubious voter fraud cases.

Read the whole thing. A man who praises the Johnson-Reed Act and criticizes the Voting Rights Act is not fit to hold office. Sessions’ colleagues tell us how kind and decent he is. He reminds me of John Stennis in that way. As my forthcoming article in History & Memory details, American media and political elites harped on Stennis’s integrity and personal kindness, as if these interpersonal qualities somehow made up for what Stennis actually did as a public figure. He spent decades fighting for white supremacy, but his colleagues called him the “conscience” of the senate.

In a similar way, if you look at what Sessions actually does, he appears to be nothing more than a white nationalist operating in a proud tradition of white southern elites. Why should we care if he’s a nice guy?

Take Action: Join the NAACP

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NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers

In the fall of 1954, tensions were rising in Mississippi. The Supreme Court had decided Brown v Board in May, and NAACP chapters around the state were preparing to bring school desegregation suits. Meanwhile, the first White Citizens’ Councils–determined to uphold segregation–had already formed and were on their way to spreading throughout the South.

In October, Byron De La Beckwith of Greenwood, Mississippi, wrote to Senator John Stennis urging him to stand strong against the forces of integration:

This is to let you know that I insist that you openly, clearly, and definitely fight and destroy all those persons in any way connected with integration. Segregation must be maintained at all cost & with any means we find most expedient. I pledge my life to maintain segregation. We must…destroy all those associated with integration.¹

Stennis lamely replied, “Dear Friend Beckwith, I certainly appreciate your letter in which you so forcefully expressed your views on segregation.” It was Stennis’s custom to indulge the violent fantasies of his white constituents with formulaic friendly replies, as he did on this occasion. In contrast, when the NAACP wrote to him, he studiously ignored their queries. In February of 1960 the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP asked Stennis to do something about the Citizens’ Councils:

We want to be free. We want the truth to be known about the Negro in Mississippi. All Negroes are entitled to equal justice, many of whom are afraid to voice their sentiments because of economic reprisals sinfully heaped upon them by their white employers. They are afraid to speak the convictions of their souls because of the hate virus spread by the White Citizens Council and similar organizations. May we impress upon you, Mr. Stennis that America cannot maintain its great heritage with its citizens half free and half slaves?²

As usual, Stennis did not respond to his black constituents. After all, he was busy supporting the Citizens’ Councils behind the scenes. He understood, correctly, that the NAACP was a mortal threat to the white supremacy he held dear.

Though the NAACP by the 1950s and 1960s already had a reputation as the cautious and stodgy old guard of the civil rights movement, it played a crucial role in the struggle. Everyone from white terrorists to U.S. senators correctly perceived that the NAACP was one of their most dangerous opponents.

And so, in the summer of 1963, Byron De La Beckwith would finally make good on his violent intentions. He assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the driveway of his own home.

Today, long after other civil rights organizations have faded, the NAACP is still around. And it’s still doing vital work, especially through the legal defense fund. The NAACP is at the forefront of efforts to protect voting rights and resist the resegregation of schools. Joining the NAACP adds your money (a small amount!) and name to the national clout of the organization, but it’s also a way to organize locally, as you can connect with the chapter in your area.

On this shameful day, as a barbarous administration comes to power, let’s take action. Do something positive. Join the NAACP. It–and you–will be needed in the years ahead.


¹Byron De La Beckwith to John C. Stennis, October 25, 1954. Series 29 Box 1 Folder 38. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

²Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP to John C. Stennis, February 18, 1960, Series 29 Box 7 Folder 16. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.