Theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist Liz Theoharis is on to discuss her TomDispatch articles "Poverty Amid Plenty' and "Making it in a Poor World". Liz is Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She is the author of, "Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor," and, "We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign."
It is week 4, the final week, of Black History Month, the month that makes people who have been failed by the educational system say “but what about WHITE history month!” Welcome, get comfy, get a drink. We’re all friends here. So in the past three weeks I have repeatedly stated that what I’m doing here is deliberately highlight systems of oppression and various atrocities committed by white people on black people over the long span of American history. Yes there are other people out there who approach Black History Month differently, instead highlighting black achievements and progress made for black people. Which is fine. Please nobody ever believe that whatever approach to whatever kind of history I present here is the only correct approach. Maybe with the exception of holocaust denial. Or just… Denial of atrocities in general. Be it against Jews, Armenians, Herrero, Mau-Mau, Dakotas or the countless tribes of West Africa. Atrocity denial usually doesn’t fly. I do highlight atrocities against black people in American history precisely because there is still so much denial about those things out there. As I repeatedly say here, I am born and raised German, and my people learn a lot about the atrocities our ancestors committed. And even that doesn’t completely inoculate us from still being occasionally antisemitic and often times pretty damn racist still. And even though this is the fourth and final installment, I will only ever have scratched the surface of this whole topic. Another thing I hope everyone listening to this understands is that I make no claim to what I’m talking about here being in any way exhaustive. I won’t even get to mention some of the bigger things like Black Wall Street and the burning of it. If you want to really dig deep into this, read a few books. I’ll give sources on the website, so visit thisishell.com and get learned if you want to know more.
So lets talk about the unholy marriage of Jim Crow and the Red Scare. The Jim Crow system in the American South was a system of laws, customs, and outright vigilante violence that was designed to keep free black people basically in the same place that they occupied during the times of slavery before the Civil War. This system came to maturity roughly around the turn of the twentieth century. Americans in the early twentieth century were throughout pretty much mind bogglingly racist. It is really hard to overstate how bad that was at the time. In 1915 the second Ku Klux Klan was founded in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Brought back to life by among other things one of the first feature length movies, “Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith, this second Klan quickly grew to be much, much more successful than its predecessor had ever been. At its peak in the 1920s, this second clan had somewhere in the realm of eight million members across the United States – not just in the South. That was about 6.5% of all Americans. This Klan sold itself as an upstanding fraternal organization that just bound people together who shared the common interest of hating black people. And Jews. And a lot of other things.
One of the central themes of Birth of a Nation – and of the then-new and hip field of race science, or eugenics, was the idea that the lesser people of the world would outbreed the more fit ones. And also that the lesser people of the world would seek to mix and mingle their tainted blood with the superior stock of the white Nordic races. The virtue of white women in particular was endangered by the lustful and sexually insatiable negro. White Klansmen, the noble knights of Ku Klux, rescue many a white damsel from the clutches of a black rapist who wishes to soil the white race with his vile seed in the movie – of course the black rapists are not portrayed by black actors, but instead by white guys in black facepaint. In that, the movie reflected a widespread fear of white people at the time. Hah. Good one Seb. At the time. Nonwhite people knocking up white women and degrading the noble Nordic races is STILL a pretty damn big fear of many a bigot today. The more things change. Well, this is Past inside the Present after all. But I digress.
What eventually really rattled those who championed Jim Crow, who had become Klan members, who financed and erected statues to the Confederate traitors to the Union in the 1920s and onwards was Communism. The Russian Revolution of 1917 that eventually birthed the Soviet Union would further down the line provide a boogieman like no other to those people. An early example of the confluence of red scare and jim crow was the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Nine black teenagers between the ages of thirteen and 20 were accused of raping two white women on a train going through Alabama in 1931. The boys were then thrown into the Southern “legal” system, with all-white juries – since jury duty was reserved for voters, and black people were as we discussed last week excluded from that – and all-white judges, who quickly sentenced them to death by the electric chair. But then the case was appealed, with legal help from the Communist Party of America and the National Association of Colored People. The case, or rather the cases, then went on for years and years, with the boys, who grew to be men in prison, ultimately not really getting actual justice. But the involvement of the Communist Party, which as Jason Sokol writes in There Goes my Everything tried using this case to highlight the horrors of the Jim Crow system, only served to prove to the white American south that communists were in league with the blacks. Black people who sought civil rights were actually only fooled by communists, and used as unwitting tools to upset the Southern social order. Northern whites who supported equal rights were then quickly seen as outside agitators, as the hated Yankees who wanted to keep the south down by enabling the negro. In the white Southern mindset, and in the mindset of the Klan, uppity black people, Jews, communists, Catholics – yes really – and labor unions all melded into a dreadful chimera that sought to erase the color line, and enable, as in the case of the Scottsboro boys, black men raping white women.
Red Scare Jim Crow fueled what historian Jeff Woods describes as “Southern Nationalism.” Brown v. Board of Education was seen as a communist plot, by a federal government that had been subverted by communist agents. The proof? Washington tried to desegregate the South. Putting black people on the same level as white people was perceived as an unacceptable outside influence bent on destroying the hallowed Southern social order. In response to that, Southerners doubled down: more statues of Confederate losers went up. The Stars and Bars replaced the Stars and Stripes. “Dixie” the national anthem. Southern anti-communism grew stronger as the Civil Rights movement grew in parallel. Southern nationalists then could tie any opposition to the Southern social order to the biggest enemies of the United States at large.
And as the involvement of the CPUSA in the Scottsboro cases shows, they had, to a degree, a point. Socialism, communism, radical left ideas were all things that attracted those black people seeking to change their situations. Richard Wright’s Native Son also deals with the intersection of American communists and black people, which really demonstrate that there were, in fact, actual connections between civil rights struggles and the American far left that existed at the time. An unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Southern red scare and communist assistance in civil rights struggle was however an acceleration of the civil rights movement rather than an impediment. Moscow could use American resistance to abandoning Jim Crow and widespread civil rights issues as a propaganda effort towards the rest of the world. So on a federal level the efforts to indeed disrupt the Southern social order were actually an effort to *counter* communism, not to aid it.
The North however was not much better. Not quite as grotesquely and violently racist as the South, sure. But not much better. After all, the Klan almost bought up Valparaiso University in Indiana in the 1920s, for example. Also let’s not forget the Chicago in 1919 had a days long race riot during which roaming gangs of white Chicagoans ran through black neighborhoods seeking to beat their black countrymen to a bloody pulp. But all over the North, as in the South, black Americans were frequently also the victim of environmental racism. This meant that industrial production dumped toxic wastes in and around black neighborhoods. Here is of course again a confluence of race and class, these neighborhoods were poor, and poor neighborhoods lack lobbying power. However, in the case of twentieth century America, black neighborhoods were also redlined neighborhoods. That meant that black people would not be able to get the loans needed to buy houses or rent outside of neighborhoods designated as “black” by real estate agents. So when then industrial waste ended up dumped in these areas, black people could not easily move away, and had to bear the burden of American progress.
And there is of course also a direct connection between the free reign that industrial producers like U.S. Steel enjoyed to pollute the environment in the name of progress in the 20th century, to the East Palestine disaster of 2023. Just that East Palestine is a mostly white town this time. But do not for a second buy into any nonsense that this is somehow a “Joe Biden does not care about white people” moment. Black people across the country have suffered much, much worse for much, much longer in terms of environmental hazards and disasters. To say nothing about the whole thing where railroad companies have since their inception in the mid-nineteenth century been major corruptors of American politics… But all of that is another story, for another time. I won’t ever run out of topics here… This is Hell after all.
Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Blacks in the New World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1977.
McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. Alfred AKnopf, 2006.
Von Eschen, Penny M. Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, n.d.
Woods, Jeff. Black Struggle, Red Scare : Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 2004.