In the South, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu angered Republicans when she pointed out the obvious, which is that President Obama’s unpopularity in the South is tied to the problem of race.
“I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” Landrieu said. “It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader."
In response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) called Landrieu’s statement “remarkably divisive.” Meanwhile, state Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said her remarks were “insulting to me and to every other Louisianian,” adding “Louisiana deserves better than a senator who denigrates her own people by questioning and projecting insidious motives on the very people she claims to represent.”
Earlier in the election season, one Cajun voter had choice words for Senator “Obama lady” and her support for that black man’s healthcare: “I don’t vote for black people, lady,” he said. “No, ma’am. I don’t vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That’s the way I was raised.”
The senator’s comments—so simple yet so profound—reveal much about the South, and the eternal Civil War that Southern conservatives continue to wage against black people. Specifically, Southern conservatives and their problematic racial attitudes translate into destructive policies for the nation, particularly voter suppression and disenfranchisement. And despite the positive changes taking place in the South, this region of the country cannot shake off its legacy of Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor, of criminalizing people of color and depriving them of their rights.
The Landrieu family typifies the complexities of race in the South. The senator’s father, Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978. Claiming victory with a progressive biracial coalition of blacks and middle-class whites, Moon Landrieu was credited with opening up opportunities for blacks. And for his support of civil rights, he was called “Moon the Coon” and “n*gger lover.”
When Moon Landrieu’s son Mitch ran to become NOLA’s first white mayor since his father, some in the black community wondered if the candidate would come clean about the family’s purported African ancestry. In a nation where one drop of black blood made you black under Jim Crow laws—and to be black was wear the badge of slavery—many light-skinned blacks were known to pass for white, disappear into white society, even abandon their families to make it in America.
And New Orleans, with its history of racial ambiguities, became ground zero for the system of Jim Crow segregation. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court legally sanctioned Jim Crow, providing it with the constitutional legitimacy it would enjoy until the civil rights movement and the Brown school desegregation decision. Homer Plessy—an octoroon who was seven-eighths white and not visibly black--violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act by sitting in a whites-only railroad car. He had been recruited by the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans to help bring down racial segregation laws. The court ruled in favor of separate but equal accommodations for the races. But in reality, Jim Crow depended on upholding white superiority and maintaining the subordination of blacks. Clearly demarcating the color line, the Supreme Court validated whiteness as a property right. In determining who was white and black and what that meant for each, Plessy revealed race to be a random and capricious, yet potent political construct.
And in the name of upholding the white race and keeping the emancipated slaves out of power, the former Confederate states enacted voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement measures, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and the implied and actual threat of Klan violence and lynching. The black members of Congress, all Republican, dwindled due to black voter disenfranchisement. The last man standing, Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina-- the first to introduce a federal anti-lynching bill in Congress, and who proposed penalizing Southern states for disenfranchising blacks— addressed the House floor at the end of his term in 1901:
“Mr. Chairman, before concluding my remarks I want to submit a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called ‘American Negro problem.’ He asks no special favors, but simply demands that he be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood, that are accorded to kindred nationalities.”
A black face would not return to Congress until 1928, or represent a Southern state until 1972.
In the interim, martyrs were created fighting for the right to vote. Southern states incorporated the confederate “stars and bars” into their state flags to protest desegregation. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. And the segregationist Dixiecrats changed teams. Capitalizing on Southern white resentment over the civil rights gains made by African-Americans, the Republican Party assumed the mantle of whiteness. Today’s Republican brand rests on white supremacy, with a Southern Strategy that lured disaffected whites away from the Democrats.
In 27 states, GOP election officials have launched a massive voter purge scheme called the Interstate Crosscheck program, as was reported by Al Jazeera. With 7 million names targeted for scrubbing from the voter rolls, the program weighs heavily towards people of color-sounding names. In a nation where voter fraud is nonexistent, Republicans would have us believe that 1 in 7 African-Americans, 1 in 8 Asian- and Latino-Americans, and 1 in 11 whites may have voted twice. What we are experiencing is a twenty-first century Reconstruction era, with massive voter suppression not unlike the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Add to that the restrictive voter ID laws, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Republican-owned Supreme Court.
And now, Mary Landrieu is the last white Democrat in Congress from the Deep South, as she faces a runoff to salvage her job. And one of the few faces of color in the GOP, Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), of Sikh descent, defended the flying of the Confederate flag at the State House in Columbia. Haley is responsible for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first Southern black Republican elected to Congress since Rep. White left in 1901. Scott, who repudiates those who compare Republicans to confederates—yet will not reject the Jim Crow voter suppression policies of his own party—is no George White.
Meanwhile, we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the savage police attack on peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge known as Bloody Sunday. The march, which is dramatized in the upcoming film Selma, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And racial politics have come full circle, and we are once again fighting against the war on voting rights. And we have to ask, what is going on here, and will it take another civil rights movement to stop the Republican Party?