The Racism of Confederate Monuments Extends to Voter Suppression

The Racism of Confederate Monuments Extends to Voter Suppression
Cover Image Credit: "United We Stand" KicknFlickz, Richmond, Virginia.

Over the past few weeks, Americans have watched as Black Lives Matter protests have turned on Confederate monuments, vandalizing them, tearing them down, spraying them with graffiti with messages to end police brutality or to call out the racism that is tearing our country apart.

As a result, several municipalities across the South have begun to take local action to remove their monuments, often located on courthouse lawns or along public thoroughfares. Doing so means to defy state laws, some of which were passed in the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre of nine parishioners of Emmanuel AME Church five years ago.

Today voter suppression in several states, made worse by gerrymandered districts like in my home state of North Carolina, makes it difficult to near impossible to elect officials who will change laws, including those intended to preserve Confederate monuments. In fact, the history of Confederate monuments is tied directly to the disenfranchisement of black voters and has been since the 1890s.

When the monument to Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond in 1890, African Americans in that city recognized it as a symbol of their own oppression and its links to suppressing their right to vote.  Barely a week after unveiling of the Lee Monument, John Mitchell, Jr. the editor of the black newspaper the Richmond Planet, penned an editorial in which he warned readers that the rights blacks had won during Reconstruction were being rolled back, especially the right to vote. “No species of political crimes has been worse than that which wiped the names of thousands of bona-fide Colored Republican voters from the Registration books of this state,” Mitchell wrote. He claimed, rightly, that refusing to allow black men to vote was a “direct violation of the law,” and blamed state officials sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution for illegally scrubbing the names of men from voter rolls, marking them “dead” or having moved to another state, when neither was true. 

John Mitchell, Jr.

Mitchell’s words were prophetic as he identified what was essentially a backlash against black progress.

In the decade following the Lee Monument’s unveiling, one southern state after another passed laws disenfranchising black men, a right that was guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The elimination of black voters, not only by law but through violent white supremacy, and the creation of Jim Crow legislation that limited black freedom, all occurred during the very same years that the hundreds of Confederate monuments now at issue were built across the South.  And black southerners did not have a say in the matter, because their rights as citizens had been obliterated. Even in towns where they represented the majority of the population, they could not vote to prevent them from being built in the center of towns where they lived, they could not petition to have them removed, and they could not protest them publicly out of fear of reprisal, although they found ways of doing so out of the view of southern whites.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black southerners not only voted, but elected people to office who looked like them. Local city councils increasingly had black representation and over the course of the next few decades African Americans throughout the region challenged the existence of Confederate symbols on the grounds of local and state government, which were supposed to be democratic public spaces that represented all citizens.

But in the 1990s, as in the 1890s, Republicans found another way to constrict black political power via majority/minority districts. This form of gerrymandering, sometimes called affirmative gerrymandering, did not violate Voting Rights Act regulations. Rather, it consolidated the minority vote, limiting a black majority to one district. As political scientist Angie Maxwell explains, while these new lines ensured minority representation, “it bleached the other districts white, allowing the GOP to pick up seats fast in the South.” The result in 1994 was the Republican takeover of the House.

This model of Republican-favored gerrymandering grew worse in the South in the early twentieth-first century, and its implementation not only guaranteed more GOP seats in Congress, it led to a similar plan that ensured GOP majorities at the state level. And these are the very state legislatures that passed monument laws designed to preserve Confederate monuments in publicly owned spaces.

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in the context of Confederate monument removal is critical to our understanding of this moment of protests.  By suppressing the rights of black voters, as well as white voters who support this movement, GOP-led state legislatures have not only prevented these voters from exercising their rights as citizens, they have usurped local control to remove monuments legally. In essence, they have left no other options for redressing this issue than to take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration.

The statue of Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham lies beside its base in Monroe Park. Photo by Andrew Ringle. Courtesy of The Commonwealth Times

Still, there have been signs in the last few weeks that there are cracks in the system, as local communities across the South have begun the process of removing their monuments, even in defiance of state laws. In Alabama, the cities of Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile have taken action to remove their monuments and accept the $25,000 fine the state imposes for such action.  In North Carolina, the law preventing removal of “objects of remembrance” is so imprecise that the towns of Asheville, Rocky Mount, and Salisbury are testing its limits by voting to remove their monuments.

Monuments are ultimately local objects and what becomes of them will be determined by the local communities in which they reside. And while it appears that the tide has turned, as several southern cities and towns have voted or are voting to remove monuments, the state laws remain a barrier to removal.

There also exists a very real concern that once GOP-led southern legislatures return to session, Republicans will close any existing loopholes in monument legislation, which will represent yet another backlash to progress. And once again, there will be no legal redress. And given voter suppression, it removes the possibility of electing officials to amend laws that allow local communities to decide the fate of Confederate monuments.

Under those circumstances, the cycle of protest will begin again.

Seasons Bleatings!

Seasons Bleatings!

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

Dear Friends and Readers,

I have so much to be grateful for this year, especially with the publication, in October, of my book Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South by UNC Press.

My travels to promote the book took me to Chicago, IL, Spartanburg, SC, Greensboro and Charlotte, NC, Mobile, AL, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA, and several towns in Mississippi, including Greenwood, Oxford, Jackson, and, of course, Natchez!  I did so with the support of family, friends, and my press–especially Brandon Proia (my editor) and Gina Mahalek (my publicist).

 

Along the way, I wrote some essays about the research that went into Goat Castle for Publishers Weekly, the Organization of American Historian’s blog Process, and an essay that linked my research to today’s incarceration of women of color for TIME magazine.  I appeared on several podcasts, and did a number of Q&A interviews for book bloggers and even VICE magazine.

What I had not expected was Charlottesville.

In the midst of promoting my book, I got caught in the public whirlwind about Confederate monuments. That began in August after white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville under the pretense of defending the Robert E. Lee monument there. In response, I wrote op-eds for the New York Times (twice), The Washington Post,  and CNN (twice), while also being interviewed by numerous media outlets including the BBC, i24 Israeli television, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Slate (France), the Los Angeles Times, and newspapers in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan.  To be honest, I lost count of the interviews, because this issue became a global one overnight.  I was also reminded of the fact that people don’t always appreciate what a historian writes. And yet, I also believe that historians must continue to write on issues for which they have expertise.

But, back to the goats.

Writing Goat Castle was the most rewarding endeavor of my career.  I met wonderful people in Natchez, got to know descendants of one of the principals in the book, and was able to write a book that most people have found accessible.  Everyone from my Aunt Wilma to my hairdresser seems to like it, and not just because they know me.

I’m frequently asked “what’s next?” I’m still trying to figure it out.  When I do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, Goat Castle has only been out a couple of months.  And, it still has a future.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Covers, Design Choices, and the Author?

Note: This post primarily applies to university presses, since this is where I’ve published.

The design of a book cover should convey the essence of what’s inside and intrigue potential readers (read: buyers).  As an author, I’m interested in how a designer visualizes the title and the ideas I’ve expressed in a book I’ve written or edited.  This can be both exciting (“The designer got it!”) or worrisome (“Whoa, that’s really off the mark!”).   It’s a process that I didn’t pay much attention to with my first book, and one I am far more invested in at this point in my career.

Consider the design of Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, published in 2003.   I didn’t have any quibbles with the font and the designer tried to incorporate some element of Confederate symbolism in the reddish bar below the photograph by adding stars.  Stars and bar, anyone?  There’s also a Confederate gray, one might say.

The photograph, one I found, is from a girls’ school in Texas where the students wore Confederate-inspired uniforms and are all standing at attention with rifles cast over their left shoulders, as though they were members of the CSA.  This conveyed a theme in my book, which is that it was women who took on the cause of Confederate memory and, in a sense, they were soldiers in the Lost Cause.

The only issue I had with the cover was that the initial gray color in the title muted my name and it couldn’t be seen.  This was upsetting, since it was my first book. It has since been corrected.

My second book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture came out in 2011.  A lot had changed since 2003. I was a more mature scholar and while I was open to the designer’s interpretation, it turned out that I needed to weigh in on this decision.

Because there were hundreds of songs written about the South by Tin Pan Alley lyricists, there was an equally large number of sheet music designs from which to draw from.  The art of Tin Pan Alley “Dixie songs” were, as you might expect, rich in color and design.  Like a book cover, the sheet music art was intended to convey the story told by the song, so the designer had plenty to draw from.

Some of the covers, however, should come with a warning: “Beware of racist caricatures!”  It should be implicit, really, but for some reason the initial design for this book actually drew from one of those racist covers.  That was when I said “hold up!”  The designer clearly misunderstood the implicit message.

The revised design got it right, because this was a book about how the South had been romanticized in American popular culture prior to the advent of television.  Here’s Miss Southern Belle strumming her banjo, sitting on some oversized cotton bolls and gazing out on a bucolic southern landscape.  Even the clouds look like cotton.  The art work is adapted from the sheet music for the song “The Whole World Comes From Dixie (When They Play That Dixie Tune).” No problems with seeing my name here.

My latest book, which presumes there’ll be another out in the ether, is Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South.  It comes out in October, but I’ve already got a jacket design, because marketing! (Speaking of marketing. . . reviewers, book bloggers, librarians, and other avid readers can now request to see the galleys on NetGalley.)

It’s a true crime story that drew on my skills as a historian, but it is written to be accessible to a broader audience.  Set in Depression-era Natchez, Mississippi, it offers insight into the decline of the Old South and southern families, but also about the Jim Crow South and the racial justice that sent an innocent woman named Emily Burns to one of the most notorious prisons in the region at the time, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman.

This book is very personal to me and so I really wanted the cover to reflect something of the southern gothic drama that unfolded that year, which resulted in national headlines. I also wanted to recognize Emily Burns, who family members called “Sister,” since she was the other victim in this crime.  She had to be on the cover. It had taken me five years to find a photograph of her and, more to the point, up until now, community memory had virtually erased her from the story.

First take on the design? No Emily.  “It didn’t work. It was confusing. Looks like she was the one murdered,” I was told.  “We can put her on the back cover.”  No, no, no.  This perpetuates her place in the story as being in the background.  No.  I also worried about the font of the title, so I pushed back.  Next take: New font, Emily, and two of the other principals in the case.  Much better.  Then I gave consideration to the original font design, because I was wrong. It was right on the money, because the font had been adapted from a ticket to Goat Castle (also known as “Glenwood”)  in the 1930s. You’ll have to buy the book to learn why there were tickets to Goat Castle.

The final take on the design pushed all of the buttons–southern gothic, image of Goat Castle, the two white principals Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, but Emily “Sister” Burns was there, too.  There was also the font that drew from the ticket.  Success!

I’m not suggesting that an author be involved in design.  In my case, I’m a historian and so just as I wouldn’t want a designer to correct me about history, it works the same in reverse. At the same time, the book represents you and your work, so when the situation merits your involvement, I believe that you can and should have a honest conversation with your press.  Be willing to compromise, however, because your press is responsible for marketing your book.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below.

W is for Waffle House

W is for Waffle House

This weekend an exhibit of images and texts called Southern Icons, A to Z opened in Pike County, Georgia.  For each letter of the alphabet, the curators chose an icon. Numerous southern writers and artists were invited to participate and I count myself lucky to be among them. In my case, I was invited to participate by writing the text that accompanied a photograph by Tammy Mercure.  We were given the letter “W” for Waffle House.  Unfortunately, I cannot be there for the opening, but here is our entry:

mercure
Photo by Tammy Mercure

My contribution:

Cultural icons, even a southern icon as familiar to the region as Waffle House, has a history. The restaurant, founded on a short order concept, first opened in 1955 in Avondale Estates, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The idea behind the restaurant was simple: provide good food quickly, especially a great breakfast waffle, and provide friendly customer service—a dollop of southern hospitality, if you will. Add a jukebox and a menu that offered customers a bang for their buck and the result was rapid success.

Yet what often makes a restaurant a cultural icon is its brand, in this case, the Waffle House sign. Using yellow glass blocks that spell out W A F F L E
H O U S E in large black letters, the sign beckons customers day and night. As Tammy Mercure’s photograph illustrates, its power is in its simplicity. For many, it signals a nostalgic memory of their youth—food after a football game or the 3 a.m. munchies following a night of revelry. And for so many more, it has come to symbolize a shared experience around food, in a familiar setting, that transcends race, class, and generation.

 

Exploring the Land

Exploring the Land

Whenever I begin new writing projects, I do so not by heading directly to the archives, but by going to the place where events happened.  There’s usually something about the geography, the architecture, street patterns, and even the climate that helps me better understand the places I write about.

burwell-school-historic
Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC

I’ve been doing this ever since I wrote my first serious undergraduate history paper.  The place was Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I wrote about a female seminary called the Burwell School that operated there beginning in the 1830s.  I went to Hillsborough, once the colonial capitol, to familiarize myself with the place. Fortunately, the building that housed the seminary was there, too, so I spent time in and around what had also been a large home.  In fact, very often such schools operated out of peoples’ homes–a fact I learned by going there.

Dunleithtourguide
Sarah and I had a very entertaining tour guide at Dunleith

More recently, I’ve spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, where it all began with an exploratory trip with a fellow historian from Mercer University, Sarah Gardner. We flew into New Orleans, rented a car, and made the 3 hour drive to the little town on the bluffs. Had I done a better job of looking at a map, the closer airport for reaching Natchez is in Baton Rouge, less than an hour and a half drive away.

It was a great beginning to a new book project.  Seeing the town, walking its streets, touring some of its mansions, and going to the edge of the bluff on which the town overlooks the Mississippi River helped me gain a better perspective of the town’s historical importance in the antebellum era.  Over the course of several visits there, I continued to learn more about the town through its streets and geography.  So well, in fact, that I have even given people directions when I’ve been there on a research trip.

cropped-2014_-5_-8_13_131.jpg
Looking at the Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs

It’s not always easy to get to the place one studies, especially for students.  Still, I think it’s a worthy goal to encourage them to go if they can, and find ways to assist them when they can’t, by encouraging them to study maps or even go on Google Earth to “see” the landscape for themselves.

landscapebog
Cypress bog in front of Melrose, a suburban estate in Natchez

Exploring the land–both the natural and built environments–is a wonderful way to get to know the places we write about.  It also adds to our historical perspective.

Cheers,

KLC