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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 22, 2003
 

The Texas-wide holes in the Strom moral crusade


The deafening sound of chisels at work may distract from one or two glaring chasms in the moralising over Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler, parents of Essie Mae Washington.

Consider just a couple of points:

Firstly, what about the moral standing of those bulwarks of the Jim Crow South who did not, so far as I know, father any bastards on family servants or anyone else? Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, for instance, who saw the Southern Caucus through many a tricky moment in defence of the South's second Peculiar Institution [1].

Russell was a very different type to the nigger-baiters of an earlier generation (though, of course, Theodore Bilbo and Ellison D Smith ('Cotton Ed' Smith to his admirers) survived to the late 1940s as colleagues in the US Senate): he really did speak quietly and carry a big stick (procedurally speaking). But, I think it's fair to say, he pretty much did all that was to be done in keeping the legislative forces of desegregation at bay - and was far more responsible than Strom Thurmond for the temporary successes that the South had in preserving Jim Crow during the late 1940s and 1950s.

Surely Russell is as morally tainted as Thurmond, if not more so? Liberals aren't suggesting that the latter's sexual licence should make his a worse sin, are they?

Secondly, there are the ordinary people of the South. Many white Southern men [2], like Strom, will have miscegenated and got away with it. As I've pointed out before (December 16), based on Calvin Hernton's book, the practice, though far from universal, was pretty much commonplace.

Why aren't these men - the ones that miscegenated and the ones that didn't - blamed as much as Strom? These salt-of-the-earth Southerners were what kept Jim Crow going, gave it its daily nourishment of hate and loathing. No Northern state would have elected Strom on the platform on which South Carolinians saw him to Columbia, and then to the Capitol: it was the Palmetto State's solid citizens who raised Strom to what he became.

Of countries with odious regimes that came under US control, in Germany, we had de-Nazification; in Japan, a similar process, mutatis mutandis. Why no re-education for the evil Southerners and their bizarre, cruel cult of race?

Because of the experience with Radical Reconstruction, of course. But also, because a Nazi was a Nazi, but that guy who turned up to one or two lynchings and maybe beat a Negro for looking at his girl - that guy was Uncle Jim from Meridian. Or Granddad from Greenville. He was misguided, certainly. But he was family. Or, in a good many cases, still is.

Strom is, in the classic meaning of the term, a scapegoat:
one that bears the blame for others

And the sex-race myth lives on: in a nasty little piece in the New York Times (December 21), the old, old story is told once more. One
Valinda Littlefield, a professor of African-American history at the University of South Carolina
is quoted as saying
White men were king. She was basically a child. He can do with her what he wants. She's more or less the family's slave.

The picture is a sort of race-reversal of Renegade Gus and little Mae Marsh just before she throws herself off the cliff to avoid a fate worse than death!

The hack evidently feels he needs to row back from this charming image:
No one is saying that Mr. Thurmond forced the teenager to have sex.

Actually, readers may recall Alvin Poussaint quoted as raising exactly that question (December 19).

The thought that 16 year old Carrie Butler may have been consumed with lust for this young (good-looking?) white man is evidently too horrible to contemplate. Or that she may have thought that Strom might have liked her enough to set her up as his concubine in a nice little house, away from the drudgery of domestic service. That spoils her essential victim status, too. Carrie must be helpless and asexual to fit the 2003 notion of victimhood. So much for feminism!

The hack then says that Littlefield suggested that
many black families who sent their daughters off to work as maids equipped them with straight razors...

What's the quantitative evidence on this? What methods did she employ to arrive at her conclusion? Was it peer-reviewed? Or, if Strom's on the menu, don't these little things matter? Did the hack even ask, or was he too excited at the way the razor image would play in his piece to want to risk spoiling his story?

And he quotes Edward Ball, the guy who found - shock horror! - that his relations were not all entirely lily-white, and made a bundle writing about it, as saying that
There was this uncontrollable, unconscious attraction to the otherness of black people...

Proof, surely, that Magnolia Madness is an equal opportunity affliction! Is Ball shilling for a remake of one of those overwrought plantation movies of the 70s, perhaps?

Again, the quantitative questions keep coming: what proportion of white men in the Jim Crow South had sex with a Negro woman at least once? If the attraction really was
uncontrollable
presumably the answer would be, All of those who could get it up!

Why can people like get away unchallenged with lies like these? 'Tis the season...

  1. Figuring much in the Keith Finley thesis which is more or less a staple on these matters here.

  2. The tendency is to assume that Southern white woman of all classes were deterred from interracial sex by the fear of pregnancy. And the Southern sex-race myth is, of course, centered on the supposed chastisty of the white woman, before and after marriage. A point to reserve for further consideration, I think.

MORE

On the Filmsite site (which has pretty full synopses of important films), the description of the cliff scene in Birth Of A Nation is interesting: Gus (promoted to Captain in the Union Army, under Radical Reconstruction) attempts to make friends with the lovely Mae Marsh (or rather her character, Flora Cameron) who is on an errand to fetch water. Her brother, Ben, is following to check on her safety:
After a long and exciting pursuit sequence (involving all three characters: Ben, Flora, and Gus), Flora scrambles higher and higher up a rocky cliff. As Gus approaches closer toward her and gestures for her to come down, she turns and repeatedly threatens him: "Stay away or I'll jump." With arms outstretched, Flora appears to lose her balance and fall off the cliff - seen from a long shot. [It could be interpreted that she committed suicide by jumping or leaping off the cliff to her tragic death, to avoid being raped and suffer dishonor, but it is more likely that her death is merely an accident.]

Now, it's some time since I watched the Birth but I'm sure the movie invited one to believe that the leap was suicide. Why is the comment kept in square brackets, I wonder?

I note from the text of Thomas Dixon's The Clansman on the UNC Chapel Hill Documenting the American South site that Flora was not in the book; and Gus was shot by Ben's father (p228) for entering his house with a group of Negro soldiers (in the film, Gus is lynched - apparently, castration scenes were cut in response to public reaction, though from what region these objectors came is not revealed).


MORE STILL

Lady Black of Crossharbour, aka Barbara Amiel - who Hollinger investors might have thought would have her attention on matters closer to home - has weighed in with her entry in the Strom Memorial Stakes. I infer that she does not take well to editing.

She starts as she means to go on:
When he was 21 and the 20th century was nearly 25 years old, Strom Thurmond, scion of a South Carolina family, made love to a young black maid who worked in his parents' home. Did she respond willingly to the pale young man, who was taking a degree in horticulture at Clemson College? The maid was no slave. Her sexual desires were her own to satisfy, if she had any.

Engage brain before opening mouth is no motto for the fabulously wealthy, of course, though, in the light of current events...

Continue - if your treacle-wading boots are up to it - past
Strom and Carrie had sexual congress.
and you will find the following historical elucidation:
"Segregation now, segregation tomorrah and segregation forever, "thundered Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas to the damn liberals up North...

Now, Faubus may have uttered those words. But the guy who is referenced as having so done by Mr Google is George Wallace of Alabama - as in these useful-looking notes, for instance.

But then - as few if any of the commentariat have done - she contemplates, albeit in her Mills & Boon gush, that the Strom-Carrie relationship might not have been the sort of agitprop tale of exploitation that passes for common wisdom on the matter:
To be surprised by the loving relationship between Essie Mae and her segregationist father is to misunderstand the South. There could be great intimacy without equality between the races. It was like the relationship between liege lords and serfs, colonial masters and subjects. The further into the 20th century we got, the rarer such relationships became, but they were not rare historically and human nature was not formed in the 20th century. Essie Mae was loved and supported by Thurmond almost all her life, as was her mother. The conviction that they were not equals was acute in Strom's mind and it existed side by side with his affection for her. Though his public political stance softened during his life, in his soul he was probably a segregationist till the day he died.

Now, admitting that most of that is Amiel's supposition or fantasy, to give the woman her due, she at least opens her mind; recognises the possibility; makes the hypothesis.

Amiel was noted here long ago for her part in helping start without the slightest justification the meme that Britain was a hotbed of salon antisemitism. On Strom, though, she is worth reading. So long as you can abide the style and are sure to check the facts.


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