Yesterday we discussed the parallels in antisemitic rhetoric between President Trump and President Nixon. Since so much has been made of President Trump’s purported racism, a political history here in Florida is in order. At least a twentieth-century history.
In 1916, Sidney Catts was elected Governor of Florida after being denied the Democratic nomination in a recount. Catts secured the nomination of the Prohibition Party and was elected. Catts talked extensively about political & bureaucratic reform and married that rhetoric with overt racism.
Here is an excerpt from Catts inauguration speech:
“Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.”
Read more for a political history in Florida…here:
But how did we get this system in the first place? Our ongoing historical research project investigates the relationship between the press and convict labor. While that story is still unfolding, we have learned what few Americans, especially white Americans, know: the dark history that produced our current criminal justice system.
If anything is to change – if we are ever to “end this racial nightmare, and achieve our country,” as James Baldwin put it – we must confront this system and the blighted history that created it.
During Reconstruction, the 12 years following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, former slaves made meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.
As the prominent historian Eric Foner writes in his masterwork on Reconstruction, “Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.”
But this moment was short-lived.
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the “slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
History is made by human actors and the choices they make.
According to Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name,” the choices made by Southern white supremacists after abolition, and the rest of the country’s accommodation, “explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.”
Designed to reverse black advances, Redemption was an organized effort by white merchants, planters, businessmen and politicians that followed Reconstruction. “Redeemers” employed vicious racial violence and state legislation as tools to prevent black citizenship and equality promised under the 14th and 15th amendments.
By the early 1900s, nearly every southern state had barred black citizens not only from voting but also from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system.
The South’s new racial caste system was not merely political and social. It was thoroughly economic. Slavery had made the South’s agriculture-based economy the most powerful force in the global cotton market, but the Civil War devastated this economy.
How to build a new one?
Ironically, white leaders found a solution in the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States in 1865. By exploiting the provision allowing “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” to continue as “a punishment for crime,” they took advantage of a penal system predating the Civil War and used even during Reconstruction.
A new form of control
With the help of profiteering industrialists they found yet a new way to build wealth on the bound labor of black Americans: the convict lease system.
Here’s how it worked. Black men – and sometimes women and children – were arrested and convicted for crimes enumerated in the Black Codes, state laws criminalizing petty offenses and aimed at keeping freed people tied to their former owners’ plantations and farms. The most sinister crime was vagrancy – the “crime” of being unemployed – which brought a large fine that few blacks could afford to pay.
Black convicts were leased to private companies, typically industries profiteering from the region’s untapped natural resources. As many as 200,000 black Americans were forced into back-breaking labor in coal mines, turpentine factories and lumber camps. They lived in squalid conditions, chained, starved, beaten, flogged and sexually violated. They died by the thousands from injury, disease and torture.
For both the state and private corporations, the opportunities for profit were enormous. For the state, convict lease generated revenue and provided a powerful tool to subjugate African-Americans and intimidate them into behaving in accordance with the new social order. It also greatly reduced state expenses in housing and caring for convicts. For the corporations, convict lease provided droves of cheap, disposable laborers who could be worked to the extremes of human cruelty.
Every southern state leased convicts, and at least nine-tenths of all leased convicts were black. In reports of the period, the terms “convicts” and “negroes” are used interchangeably.
Of those black Americans caught in the convict lease system, a few were men like Henry Nisbet, who murdered nine other black men in Georgia. But the vast majority were like Green Cottenham, the central figure in Blackmon’s book, who was snatched into the system after being charged with vagrancy.
A principal difference between antebellum slavery and convict leasing was that, in the latter, the laborers were only the temporary property of their “masters.” On one hand, this meant that after their fines had been paid off, they would potentially be let free. On the other, it meant the companies leasing convicts often absolved themselves of concerns about workers’ longevity. Such convicts were viewed as disposable and frequently worked beyond human endurance.
The living conditions of leased convicts are documented in dozens of detailed, firsthand reports spanning decades and covering many states. In 1883, Blackmon writes, Alabama prison inspector Reginald Dawson described leased convicts in one mine being held on trivial charges, in “desperate,” “miserable” conditions, poorly fed, clothed, and “unnecessarily chained and shackled.” He described the “appalling number of deaths” and “appalling numbers of maimed and disabled men” held by various forced-labor entrepreneurs spanning the entire state.
Dawson’s reports had no perceptible impact on Alabama’s convict leasing system.
The exploitation of black convict labor by the penal system and industrialists was central to southern politics and economics of the era. It was a carefully crafted answer to black progress during Reconstruction – highly visible and widely known. The system benefited the national economy, too. The federal government passed up one opportunity after another to intervene.
Convict lease ended at different times across the early 20th century, only to be replaced in many states by another racialized and brutal method of convict labor: the chain gang.
Convict labor, debt peonage, lynching – and the white supremacist ideologies of Jim Crow that supported them all – produced a bleak social landscape across the South for African-Americans.
Black Americans developed multiple resistance strategies and gained major victories through the civil rights movement, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow fell, and America moved closer than ever to fulfilling its democratic promise of equality and opportunity for all.
But in the decades that followed, a “tough on crime” politics with racist undertones produced, among other things, harsh drug and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were applied in racially disparate ways. The mass incarceration system exploded, with the rate of imprisonment quadrupling between the 1970s and today.
The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. The outgoing 44th president, Barack Obama, spoke of King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008:
“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”
Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.
King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.
In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy. Indeed, the best of African-American preaching is three-dimensional – it is priestly, it is sage, it is prophetic.
So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?
First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.
In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.
The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.
This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.
Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.
Rise of the black cleric-politician
Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.
As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as school teachers and administrators during the work week.
Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African-Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.
Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African-American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.
To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.
The cradle of King’s political and spiritual heritage
Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to northern communities between 1916 and 1940.
A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African-American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.
The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.
However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement (e.g., job training, home economics classes and libraries), nearly all southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons that exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.
Setting the prophetic tradition
Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.
Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.
Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.
Shaping of King’s vision
The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.
Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.
During the summer following the Selma Movement, Vivian conceived and directed an educational program, Vision, and put 702 Alabama students in college with scholarships (this program later became Upward Bound). His 1970 Black Power and the American Myth was the first book on the Civil Rights Movement by a member of Martin Luther King’s staff.
The Orangeburg Massacre refers to the shooting of protesters by South Carolina Highway Patrol Officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina near South Carolina State University on the evening of February 8, 1968. The approximately 150 protestors were demonstrating against racial segregation at a local bowling alley. Three of the protestors, African American males, were killed and twenty-eight other protestors were injured.
On the night of February 8, 1968, students started a bonfire on the front of SC State’s campus. As police and firefighters attempted to put out the fire, officer David Shealy was injured by an object that was thrown. Shortly thereafter (around 10:30 p.m.) South Carolina Highway Patrol Officers began firing into the crowd of around 150 protesters. Eight Patrol Officers fired carbines, shotguns, and revolvers at the protesters, which lasted around 10 to 15 seconds. Twenty-eight people were injured in the shooting; most of which were shot in the back as they were running away, and three African American men were killed. The three men killed were Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith (both SCSU students), and Delano Middleton, a student at the local Wilkinson High School.
The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the social movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against black Americans and restoring voting rights to them. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1955 and 1968, particularly in the South. The emergence of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975, enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by white Americans.
The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to these situations that highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts such as the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) in Alabama; “sit-ins” such as the influential Greensboro sit-ins (1960) in North Carolina; marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama; and a wide range of other nonviolent activities.
Noted legislative achievements during this phase of the Civil Rights Movement were passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. African Americans re-entered politics in the South, and across the country young people were inspired to action.
Desegregation busing in the United States (also known as forced busing or simply busing) is the practice of assigning and transporting students to schools in such a manner as to redress prior racial segregation of schools, or to overcome the effects of residential segregation on local school demographics.
Diane Judith Nash was born on May 15, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois to Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash. Nash grew up a Roman Catholic and attended parochial and public schools in Chicago. In 1956, she graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Illinois and began her college career at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
While a student in Nashville Nash witnessed southern racial segregation for the first time in her life. In 1959, she attended nonviolent protest workshops led by Reverend James Lawson who was affiliated with the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. Later that year she protested exclusionary racial policies by participating in impromptu sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters. Nash was elected chair of the Student Central Committee because of her nonviolent protest philosophy and her reputation from these sit-ins.
By February 13, 1960, the mass sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1 had spread to Nashville. Nash organized and led many of the protests which ultimately involved hundreds of black and white area college students. As a result, by early April Nashville Mayor Ben West publicly called for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters and organized negotiations between Nash and other student leaders and downtown business interests. Because of these negotiations, on May 10, 1960 Nashville, Tennessee became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters.
In 1966, Nash joined the Vietnam Peace Movement. Through the 1960s she stayed involved in political and social transformation. In the 1980s she fought for women’s rights. Nash now works in real estate in her home town Chicago, Illinois, but continues to speak out for social change.