April 2012 Archives

Forget Mint Juleps! It's Bourbon and Irony For Me!

Since the South's interactions with the rest of the country are simply replete with examples of "incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result," I've always said that southern historians would simply be forced to go out of business if we were no longer allowed to use any form of the word "irony." A contemporary case in point lies in the controversial Arizona immigration bill now under scrutiny by the United States Supreme Court. According to the federal government's brief in the case, in effectively adopting its own unilateral immigration policy focusing "solely on maximum enforcement," Arizona has tried to "interpose its own judgments" on matters strictly delegated to the Office of the President of the United States. As the Feds point out, the Immigration and Nationality Act "vested the Executive Branch with the authority and the discretion to make sensitive judgments with respect to aliens, balancing the numerous considerations involved: national security, law enforcement, foreign policy, humanitarian considerations, and the rights of law-abiding citizens and aliens." Allowing each state to establish its own immigration rules would therefore "wholly subvert Congress's goal" of establishing "a single national approach."

The New York Times was quick to point to the irony here: "The word 'interpose' is a yellow flag in the history of state and federal relations. The southern states claimed a right of 'interposition' as a basis for secession before the Civil War, and they resurrected the idea in the 1950s. (Think John C. Calhoun and the "Nullification Crisis" in the first instance and Harry F. Byrd and "Massive Resistance" in the second,) Just as they claimed the right to interpose their power between the federal government and their populations over slavery and other issues in the nineteenth century, the southern states claimed the right to ignore the Supreme Court's desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education." (1954) Although the Supreme Court ruling in Cooper v. Aaron,(1958) "scorched" this ruse for maintaining racial discrimination in defiance of the Brown decision, the Times editorialist points to the "racial profiling" inherent in the Arizona law's mandate for aggressive interrogation and scrutiny of all Hispanics, its ultimate goal being "separation by race." This practice cannot be allowed to stand, the writer concludes because "just as racial equality was the law of the land during the desegregation era, it is the law of the land today."

Had our righteously indignant writer been a little more attentive to historical reality, he would have found even greater irony behind and within this case because, in fact, "racial equality was the law of the land" for more than half a century prior to the desegregation era as well. When the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, it upheld racially separate accommodations and facilities so long as they were "equal" in quality. Three years later, however, in keeping with its long-standing habit of seeking the narrowest possible reading of both statutes and case law appertaining thereto, the Court declined to intervene in a case where, despite its large black population, Richmond County, Georgia, provided no high school for black children at all.

Such judicial responses were all too typical over the next two generations before the courts finally began to show some disposition to give at least a little weight to the "equal" side of the "separate-but-equal" equation. By 1950, the justices would have no truck with the state of Texas's attempt to establish, virtually overnight, a black "law school" consisting of a few rented offices and dog-eared law books and a faculty of equally rundown hacks looking to supplement the proceeds of their ambulance-chasing. No way," said the guys on the bench, that such a set up could be construed as even remotely equal to that offered by the University of Texas at Austin, with its massive law library and large, distinguished faculty.

By the middle of the twentieth century, northern critics had a hard time understanding why, for the most part, even the most racially progressive white southerners were not out rallying such supporters as they might have drummed up for an immediate, full-scale assault on Plessy. At least part of the answer lay in the fact that these folks were at that point still heavily engaged in trying to get southern officials simply to comply with it, and one might add, risking both their reputations and sometimes their lives in doing so. At that point, ventured crusading Mississippi journalist Hodding Carter, the South was "the only place in the western world where a man could become a liberal simply by urging obedience to the law."

As if to underscore Carter's point, the initial litigation coming out of Clarendon County, South Carolina, that actually spawned Brown v. Board was focused not on overturning Plessy but on forcing the local school board to at least live up to it by providing transportation for black students just as it did for whites in this black-majority county. It was only as this effort progressed that the NAACP broadened the scope of its argument to declare that regardless of the relative quality of the facilities provided, segregated public education in any form was unconstitutional.

The entrenched pattern of severe racial discrimination, even----and sometimes especially----in counties where blacks made up the majority of the population, could be traced to a variety of disfranchisement measures that prevented more than a handful of blacks at most in such areas from getting anywhere near a ballot box. Largely bereft of political influence, their only hope lay in the courts, where, despite the prodigious efforts of the NAACP, anything resembling justice for blacks was exceedingly difficult to come by. In asking how black Southerners could be so thoroughly stripped of rights expressly granted them by both the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, we come quickly to the readiness of both northern and southern jurists to willfully suspend their instincts for disbelief. In the 1898 Williams v. Mississippi ruling that paved the way for the rest of the southern states to proceed with vigor in actively disfranchising their black citizens, the Court upheld provisions in the state's 1890 constitution mandating a literacy test, as well payment of a poll tax, as prerequisites for voting. Clearly aimed at poor and illiterate blacks (although, in practice, the impossible stringency of the literacy test selectively applied to blacks meant that physicians and teachers often "failed" it as well), these two measures speedily trimmed the black electorate of a black-majority state down to 6 percent of the adult black population. Yet, because, on the face of it, the court could find no language in the Mississippi laws explicitly indicating racially discriminatory intent on the part of the state, it left these measures in place and thus left blacks in Mississippi and throughout most of the South with practically no voice whatsoever in how their local schools were operated and supported. (It was surely no coincidence that the courts and the Congress began to show interest in black rights only after the cumulative political effect of the exodus of millions of blacks from southern states where they could not vote to northern states where they could began to set in.)

At any rate, the longstanding judicial inclination to don blinders as well as robes and adhere to a narrow literalism that allowed the courts to sign off on blatant examples of state-imposed discrimination points to a final irony in our contemporary case. This one emanates not from the Arizona legislature but from none other than the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Roberts, who must surely have struggled to suppress a grin when at the beginning of the government's argument in United States v. Arizona, he told Solicitor General Donald Verilli, "I'd like to clear up at the outset what it's not about. No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling, does it? I saw none of that in your brief." With that issue off the table for the time being at least, the Court's conservatives were free to poke holes in the murkier and less compelling government contention that Arizona's draconian immigration statute amounts to a usurpation of both congressional and presidential prerogative. Savoring the delicious irony of seeing a New York-born, Harvard-educated chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court effectively assisting representatives of a state far removed from the old Confederacy whose ultimate aim is clearly to subvert federal authority, Calhoun and Byrd are surely somewhere cracking open a bottle of the good stuff and toasting their vindication as men not behind, but way ahead of their times.

The American passion to centennialize--especially if there's a buck to be made in the bargain--embraces not only triumphs but tragedies as well, and in both cases, the bigger the better. Thus, we were assured of some truly big-time hoopla and kerfuffle surrounding the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Persistent rumors about my age notwithstanding, I was not around for the actual event and did not share a pint or two with the navigator before he set sail. In fact, my first knowledge of the sad affair came as a child when I was rummaging through some old books and found what was basically a pictorial history of the ship and a gallery of photographs of all the rich and famous swells who were on board. As an eight-year old I was predictably amused by a photo of one Colonel and Mrs. Archibald Butt. Only later would I learn that "Archie" Butt (as he was known affectionately by friends and confidantes, including Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft) was a fellow Georgian, born in Augusta. Later still, I would pick up the tale of a certain physician who was not only a Georgian but a fellow Hart Countian. Unfortunately, he was famous among the locals as the kind of fellow who was not known to drink until someone finally saw him sober. In what was surely the mother of all ironies, the good doctor had gone out and gotten himself a good snoot full the night before and consequently  missed the Titanic's maiden and only voyage. Local lore had it that when ol' Doc finally sobered up, he had piously written his good fortune off as simply "God's will." Only recently did I encounter the truly tender and touching story of a former Georgian, Isidore Strauss, who had spent part of his childhood in tiny Talbotton, Georgia, where his father, Lazarus, ran a dry goods store--until 1863, when the local Grand Jury, acting in rather mindless concert with officials in nearby towns, issued a resolution condemning "the infidel and unpatriotic conduct of the representatives of Jewish houses who had engaged in [the] nefarious business" of war profiteering. As June Hall McCash relates in her terrific new book, "A Titanic Love Story," practically everybody in town including every member of the grand jury itself came to assure Lazarus that these words were most certainly not directed at him, Mr. Strauss took the action as a "personal affront,' loaded up his wagons with family and merchandise and quickly bade Talbotton a none-too fond farewell.  Although young Isidore had attempted to enlist in the Confederate Army, after the war the family moved to New York, where Lazarus first leased space for his crockery business from the R. H Macy Company and then became an investor in the company, paving the way for his sons to eventually obtain a controlling interest in the firm.  Along the way to great wealthy and a stellar record of philanthropy, Isidore married Ida Brun, the daughter of German immigrants, who would quite literally become the love of his life, and he hers. The extent of their mutual devotion became heartbreakingly clear when Ida declined a spot in one of the Titanic's lifeboats, choosing instead to die in the icy waters of the Atlantic, cradled in the arms of her beloved Isidor.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines, (along with other assorted know-it-alls of all stripes) have noted the tendency of southern white evangelicals to find a "moral" in every tragedy. Hence among white Southerners especially, the Titanic's demise naturally became the inspiration for hundreds upon hundreds of sermons, not to mention a number of poems and several songs, the great majority of which chalked the whole sad affair up to man's arrogance in thinking that mere mortals could ever construct a ship or anything else that God or the forces of nature at his disposal could not destroy. (Think of the debacle described in Genesis when the prideful Babylonians undertook to build a tower that would reach all the way to Heaven.) This was the principal theme of Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman's 1924 recording, "The Sinking of the Titanic:"

When they were building the Titanic, they said what they could do.
They were going to build a ship that no water could not go through,
But God with his mighty hand showed to the world it could not stand.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

There was also a stern rebuke for the rich for shunning the huddled masses fatally consigned to steerage:

When they left Eng-a-land, they were making for the shore.
The rich they declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they sent the poor below, they were the first that had to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

While it is true that black and white Southerners share a rich history, it is also true that they frequently experienced and perceived it quite differently. For example, Reconstruction seemed a period of liberation and great promise for blacks and one of distress and travail for whites. Accordingly, an event where more than 1,000 whites lost their lives got a distinctly different treatment at the hands of black musical artists and storytellers. For bluesman and folk artist Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," the central message of the Titanic affair lay in reports that world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, a larger-than-life black folk hero who beat down any and all white challengers and showed a distinct preference for white women as sexual companions, was denied passage on the Titanic because of his race:

Captain Smith, when he got his load
Mighta heard him holl'in' "All aboa'd "
Cryin', Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.
Jack Johnson wanted to get on boa'd;
Captain Smith hollered, "I ain' haulin' no coal."
Cryin', Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.

Thus not only was Johnson's life spared by virtue of the Titanic's racial exclusivity, but news of the sinking moved him to break into a popular dance step:

"Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock,
Mighta seen the black rascal doin' the Eagle Rock"

Indeed, in Lead Belly's portrayal, the Titanic's doom should be cause for celebration among all black Americans:

"Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well."

            In a mythical alternative version of the story, there is, in fact, one black person on the Titanic, the lowly stoker "Shine," who, after repeated attempts to warn the uncomprehending Captain that the ship is filling up with water, simply jumps overboard and swims to shore despite pleas for help from rich white men offering money and beautiful white women offering sex. Thus it ultimately comes to pass that:

"When all them white folks went to heaven,

 Ol' Shine was in Sugar Ray's Bar drinking Seagram's Seven."



Like all great historical events, the Titanic disaster yielded a vast array of human stories.  The factual details might be shaky in some cases, but depending on how they are told and interpreted--and by and for whom--every one of them has an important truth to reveal.



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