Braided Cords of History
Having recently begun rereading Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, I am struck by the intertwining of three cords of our history:
- Celebrating the abolition of slavery in 1865
- At the conclusion of the Civil War, remembering the White supremacist massacre and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921
- The current wave of laws passed in numerous Republican-controlled states to roll back voting by people of color.
“Juneteenth” is of course the shorthand for the day in June 1865 when federal troops finally landed in Texas and told African Americans that they were free. We know, now, that the promise of freedom was brutally betrayed, yielding to the legal segregation and disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow era.
The spirit of the Jim Crow era manifested itself in the Tulsa massacre—and in dozens of other assaults by Whites against Blacks all over the country, not just in the South. Blacks struggled for decades to uproot this White supremacist regime, achieving legal success with court decisions in the 1950s and the great Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s.
Just as the struggle for Black freedom has endured, the struggle for White Supremacy continues too, now led by racist ideals of Donald Trump.
But just as White Supremacy refused to die after 1865, it lived on after the 1960s continuing to plague black history. The Democratic Party had been an essential vehicle for enforcing White Supremacy under Jim Crow, but after President Johnson teamed up with the party’s Northern liberals and the Civil Rights Movement to pass the civil rights laws, Whites in the South began a long migration into the Republican Party, which under Nixon and Reagan became the new vehicle for White Supremacy.
Lee Atwater, the South Carolina Republican architect of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” put it thus in a confidential interview in 1981:
Y'all don't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger". By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this", is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger". So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner. (source: Wikipedia)
Just as the struggle for Black freedom has persisted through history, from the first slave ship in 1619 to the present, the struggle for White Supremacy continues as well, now with the blatantly racist appeals of Donald Trump and the passage of state laws to make it harder to vote and easier to throw out results that don’t please the Republicans in power.
The antagonistic cords of our history are inextricably braided together.