FIGHTING NEGRO SUPREMACY
Every time African Americans seem to ask for their rights, or protest against injustice, or gain some political, educational, or economic footing there are those who see their gain as a loss for white people. There is such a hysterical fear among some whites that any gain for African Americans is seen not simply as an achieving of their rights as full citizens but as a “win” over white people, as a step toward actual “Negro” supremacy.
I am reading (listening) to a great biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. Surely this must be a book that revisionist historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction are going to hate. One of the things that jumped out to me in the book was the citing of historic quotes from those who opposed the implementation of the 14th & 15thAmendments to the Constitution.
Some folks actually used the phrase “Negro Supremacy” to describe what was happening in the country during Reconstruction. This is the time when 4 million freed slaves went from being counted as 3/5 of a human being for Congressional representation to being counted as full citizens. Black people were to be given the full protection of the law, they were allowed the right to vote, and to run for office. Those Confederates who would not admit defeat attempted to do everything they could to prevent black people making use of their rights. The origins of the Klu Klux Klan came from this time and it was a time of terrorism, violence, and intimidation.
It is interesting that the Southern states were allowed to increase their Congressional representation by counting black folks as full persons (they gained 40 extra seats) but did not intend for black folks to be treated as equals. This was a perverse outcome of Reconstruction and made it harder for the Republicans (the party of the North and abolitionists) to continue the reforms of Reconstruction. Virulent racism kept resisting any substantive change to the status of black folk (except as legal slaves) by wailing over “carpet-baggers” and injury to State Rights and racial fear of what free black men might do to white women. White Republicans were assassinated, black men were slaughtered, schools that Northern missionaries had come down to build for freed black people were burned. A reign of terror took hold until President Grant could break it through a targeted prosecution of Klan leaders.
The reelection of President Grant in 1872 was the freest election for black voters, something they would not enjoy and not to be repeated again until 1968. So powerful was racism that it resisted and finally broke the hold of the former abolitionists and Northern Republicans on the reforming and integrating of the South toward a real living out of the Bill of Rights. One hundred years of racial darkness enveloped the South, and a system of Jim Crow segregation was allowed to deny black folks their full rights as American citizens.
One of the things that comes to light in Chernow’s book is that even some abolitionists gave way to racism. They had advocated and fought for emancipation but were ready to throw away the human rights of people of color and were not ready to count them as equals. This fear of black ascendancy is irrational but it is based on real emotional passion. Most of it is simple fear and pure anger, expressed and practiced as hate. It is a zero sum game way of thinking that if “they” gain “we” must lose. This is as tribal a rivalry as one can find in the world. We are not immune from it today, not in thinking, relating to one another, or in politics.
Full rights, full protection, and full integration into the life of society and the country doesn’t mean anyone has to lose, except in someone’s preconceived ideas of what a society or country should look like. This fear of “Negro Supremacy” continues to prevent white folks putting themselves into the shoes of people of color when they are profiled, treated unjustly by authorities, treated differently in schools, courts, or employment opportunities. Racism prevents empathy and without empathy we can’t achieve unity. With unity our whole country prospers.
For too long children have been lied to about the time of Reconstruction, lied to about campaigns of racial violence, lied to about the mechanization’s of racist politicians to dismantle the achievements of the Civil War, and about the sacrifice of both white and black people who lived and came down to the South to realize those achievements. Many of them were wonderful Christians who took their lives into the hands, and gave up their lives, for the glory of Christ and for the freedom of men. We all need to resist “zero-sum-game” thinking when it comes to treating people with dignity and standing for their rights.