Friday, July 31, 2009

Race and Class in Civil War Mississippi

The recent arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white Cambridge cop has allowed the mass media to talk about racial and class inequality as if only blacks or other minorities have reason to be concerned about the former and whites only have reason to be concerned about the latter. The actual history of race and class in the deep South shows how wrong this view is.

During the summer break between my sophomore and junior year in college I, along with several other Dartmouth College students, took a job in Talladega, Alabama at the black Talladega College as an Upward Bound tutor of black high school students. It was 1966 and we decided that, on our time off work, we would join the Civil Rights Movement by registering black people in town to vote.

I recall walking down a dusty red clay road in sweltering heat, past shacks on the right hand side of the road, until we got to identical shacks further down the road on the left hand side. Very poor whites lived in the first set of shacks on the right, and very poor blacks lived in the second set of shacks on the left. As we passed the shacks on the right, we would see white people looking at us, but we ignored them. Day after day during that summer we walked right past the whites to get to the blacks. The whites never demonstrated any hostility to us whatsoever, and we reciprocated by never demonstrating the slightest interest in them. We didn't know if they were registered to vote or not. It never even occurred to us to find out. It was only decades later that it occurred to me to wonder why not.

In retrospect, the reason was clear. We had all absorbed the dominant idea: poor whites in the deep South are racists. We had images in our heads of poor whites waving the Confederate Flag, lynching blacks, and joining the Ku Klux Klan. Why would we want to register such people to vote?

But sometimes reality conflicts with the dominant ideas about it. The history of race and class in the heart of Mississippi during the Civil War demonstrates this.

On March 8, 1864 Captain A.F. Ramsey of the Confederacy's 3rd Mississippi Regiment wrote to Major J.C. Denis, the regional provost marshal about an attack on a Confederate installation in New Augusta, Mississippi. Of the attackers, Ramsey wrote, "They stated they were in regular communication with the Yankees, were fighting for the Union, and would have peace or hell by August. They told the negros they were free."

The attackers were natives of Mississippi, not Yankees. They were whites--the sort of whites that were called "poor white trash" by the "better" folk of the Confederacy. They came from Jones County and nearby counties of rural Mississippi, where they were small "yeoman" farmers who owned no slaves and were proud of that fact. They farmed small plots of land, and as fugitives who had been conscripted into and then deserted from the Confederate Army, they hid in the swamps around their farms.

Sally Jenkins, a journalist, and John Stauffer, chair and professor of the History of American Civilization at Harvard University wrote a book about these anti-Confederacy whites of Mississippi. Their book is titled "The State of Jones" because Jones County, Mississippi, virtually seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War. This book tells about an important aspect of race relations in American history that is unknown by most Americans. Here are some things I learned from it.

In their attack on the Confederate installation, these "poor white trash"
"surrounded the home in which the local conscription officer, Captain John J. Bradford, of the 3rd Mississippi Regiment, was staying. In broad daylight they called him outside and took a vote on whether to hang him. He was 'pardoned' after he promised to quit the conscription service and swore never again to enter the county or to in any way aid in attacks against them. They took three more prisoners at gunpoint, liberated the local slaves, and seized a dozen horses, government stores, ammunition, and cooking utensils. They issued provisions to destitute families in the neighborhood."
Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk wrote to President Jefferson Davis that the Jones Countians were "in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves 'Southern Yankees,' and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them." Polk "ordered elements from two of the most battle-hardened regiments in the whole of the Confederacy army, the 'Bloody' 6th Mississippi and the intensely loyal 20th Mississippi, to conduct an expansive sweep of the lower Mississippi, combing the several counties between the Pearl and Tombigbee rivers for deserters." They arrested about 500 men in seven counties.

Here's one way the yeoman farmer "guerillas," led by Newton Knight, fought back against Polk's "rebel" troops:
"Another better-laid trap succeeded. Some of the area farmwives invited the troopers to a dance party at Levi Valentine's. The cavalrymen arrived to find a Negro fiddler sawing on his instrument and friendly local girls eager to waltz. But as they cavorted, the Jones County men crept up on the guards for an ambush. As the cavalrymen realized the trap, chaos erupted. The women fled out the back door, while the rebels bolted toward the front porch, where Newton's men met them with a brace of gunfire. Two cavalrymen and one guerrilla were killed in the exchange."
At this time slaves who were able to do so left the plantations and headed for Union positions. By the end of 1863 about 50,000 former slaves were serving in the Union Army. One slave woman named Rachel, who was owned by relatives of Newton Knight, remained with her owner.
"Newton's most reliable ally and source of sustenance was Rachel...The young woman knew both the ways of the swamp and the kitchens of Confederates. Rachel ferried food, clothing and information to Newton. She regularly crossed the boundaries between Confederate households, the slave cabins, and the hidden civilization in the swamp, carrying news to Newton and keeping him apprised of rebel movements...For the rest of the war, Rachel would operate as Newton's 'intelligence,' ...she became Newton's spy, his eyes and ears."

During the fighting, Newton was unable to stay with his wife and family on their farm, and he and Rachel became, in effect, a married couple who later raised children and had grandchildren together.

General Polk's determined effort to capture Newton's men failed. "All the Confederate cavalry, artillery, and crack infantry regiments had done was give him temporary pause. Nor had they solved the larger problem of desertion in the ranks: only 20 percent of the five thousand active deserters in Mississippi had been caught and returned to duty."

Non-slave-owning "poor white trash" deserted from the Confederate army in large numbers for four main reasons. They hated being treated like dirt by the slave-owning officers. They hated the Confederate government for allowing men who owned twenty or more slaves to remain at home with their families while poorer men were conscripted. They hated the Confederate government for sending agents to attack their wives--robbing them of food and the means to keep themselves and their children alive while their husbands were away. And they were unwilling to risk their lives to defend the institution of slavery. In fact, they believed in equality of all human beings. Newton Knight and his followers were Baptists who "practiced foot washing, lay preaching, and egalitarian worship in unadorned buildings. The central tenet of their faith was that all humans were equal in God's eyes and infused with God's spirit. 'God is no respecter of persons' was one of their favorite passages from the Bible. Another was: 'Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.'"

The "poor white trash" of Mississippi formed an alliance with the slaves against the Confederate slave-owning elite. As Jenkins and Stauffer write: "Also, every day more blacks liberated from plantations came into the swamps to join the struggle."

The poor whites of Mississippi who fought the Confederacy alongside slaves did so because of working class values that they shared with slaves. The fact that poor whites may have believed some racist lies about blacks that constituted the dominant ideas of the day is not nearly as important or significant as the fact that their working class values led them to ally with slaves to fight the racist ruling class. Racism came from the upper class, and anti-racism came from the working class--black and white--in Mississippi during the Civil War.

Knowing about this history of class struggle in Mississippi during the Civil War makes it easier to understand how, in the 1930s throughout the South, black and white tenant farmers united in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union against the large landowners and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and waged successful strikes for better conditions.

The idea that in a society where blacks are on average worse off than whites, being poor and white means being racist is simply not true. It is a myth that the elite loves us to believe, because it causes well-intentioned people, like me and my fellow Dartmouth students in 1966, to view working class whites as the enemy. This myth helps the elite to equate "anti-racism" with "anti-white working class" and thus divide and rule the working class.

The elite is only strengthened when people, in the name of "fighting racism," wrongly assert that ordinary white people benefit from racism and are, therefore, the source of racism. Newton Knight and his men freed slaves while fighting the upper class of the Confederacy because they were for equality and opposed to oppression of anybody--black or white. They knew it was worse to be a slave than a "free" poor white, but they also knew that slavery didn't benefit them, it benefited those who oppressed them. They knew their fight against the Confederacy was strengthened by the solidarity they had with the slaves. Likewise, the slaves who joined with Newton Knight's men knew that the important thing about those men was not that they were better off than slaves but that they were fighting against oppression.

The "left" phrase, "White Skin Privilege," with its implication that working class people with a white skin benefit from racism because they are "privileged" to live in a society in which black people are on average worse off than whites, is profoundly misleading. Thank goodness Newton Knight's men and the slaves they allied with had never heard of that phrase. And thank goodness they all understood that both racial and class inequality are a problem for working class people no matter what their race.


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