by Gregg Ivers is Professor of Government at American University. He is currently working on a book, Swingin’ at Jim Crow: How Jazz Became a Civil Rights Movement.
In September 1962, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was looking for something – anything – that would boost his sagging political fortunes. Just three years before, Barnett had barely prevailed in a four-way contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination, winning just 35 percent of the vote, barely one percent more than his closest rival. While Barnett would win handily in the subsequent run-off and run unopposed in the 1959 general election, by mid-1961 his autocratic and less-than-honest governing style had rubbed many white Mississippians the wrong way. Sure, he was among the founders of the state’s first Citizens’ Council, an organization of suit-and-tie businessmen set up after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to maintain Mississippi’s unparalleled commitment to racial apartheid in every aspect of public and private life. And, yes, Barnett had shown the Freedom Riders who was boss the previous spring, when he sent the remainder of those who had survived their harrowing May 1961 ordeal in Birmingham and Montgomery to Parchman Farm, the state’s most notorious prison, after their arrival in Jackson for violating the state’s segregation laws.
But in 1960, Mississippi ranked last in per capita and family median income, and remained familiarly positioned at the bottom of every other measure of health, education and welfare. Barnett had pledged during his campaign to attract business to Mississippi by relaxing environmental regulation and promoted “right to work” laws to make union organization nearly impossible, the better to hold down labor costs in order to attract manufacturing jobs to the state. He also promised to improve Mississippi’s public schools and devote resources to improving the state’s infrastructure. These promises became very difficult for the new governor to fulfill because of the state’s limited public resources.
And there were other, not-so-secret reasons for Mississippi’s destitution. In 1960, almost all African Americans in the state worked for whites as menial laborers, on farms or, as was the case for women, in domestic service. They were paid, at best, subsistence wages or, in the case of farm workers, in trade as sharecroppers. And whatever money actually changed hands between white employers and black workers came not in the form of a check with deductions, but cash. Approximately 55 percent of Mississippi’s population lived in poverty; for blacks, the poverty rate was closer to 80 percent, both figures that far exceeded the national average. Not coincidentally, poverty rates in 1960 were highest in the Southern states where cotton had once been king and required a poor, unskilled and racially subservient black labor force to pick it.
Literacy and education attainment fared no better. About five percent of the state’s general population was illiterate, second only to South Carolina. Then, as now, Mississippi had the highest percentage of Africans Americans relative to the general population. In 1960, that percentage was 42 percent, down from approximately 53 percent in 1900, a loss attributable to the Great Migration of Southern blacks for Northern cities or anywhere else where the iron boot of Jim Crow was less severe.
In addition to economic and educational deprivation, Mississippi, like all the Southern states, had effectively disenfranchised its African American voting-age population after the collapse of Reconstruction by amending its state constitution by placing restrictions on the right to vote. In 1956, the Mississippi legislature went further than even states like Alabama and South Carolina by establishing the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. At state expense, the Commission acted as a spy agency against its black population and any “outside agitators,” black or white, involved in the blossoming civil rights movement. Their pictures, names and addresses were published in local newspapers, passed along to employers, provided to banks that extended credit to blacks. This also gave terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan a marker on where to inflict their special brand of terror should black Mississippians forget their place in the Southern racial social structure.
Ross Barnett made clear during his 1959 campaign for governor that no one would have the upper hand on him when it came to enforcing the state’s meticulous regime of racial apartheid. Barnett, a former Sunday school teacher, assured white Mississippians that white children would never cede their place in the social order by attending school with black children no matter what the Supreme Court said. Ever. This was the will of God, who, as Barnett once said, “made the Negro different so he could punish him.”
Despite promises that he would herald in a “new era” of prosperity, Barnett’s stock had fallen over the years for failing to improve the conditions of its white citizens. That autumn, Barnett was booed when he attended Old Miss football games in Oxford, especially after word broke that he had used $300,000 in state funds to install gold-plated faucets in the bathrooms of the governor’s mansion. For the poorest state in the country, Barnett’s commitment to self-dealing and personal vanity was not going over terribly well with a white population in which one in three lived at or below the poverty line.
Then, on September 3rd, 1962, a gift wrapped in electoral gold arrived on Barnett’s front door. A federal court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, a 29 year-old Air Force veteran, for the fall semester. Barnett wasted no time in seizing upon such a glorious opportunity to reestablish himself with white Mississippians who would resist, by any means necessary, the integration of their beloved Ole Miss. This was an institution, after all, that closed temporarily in September 1861 after all but four of its 135 students took up arms on behalf of the Confederate cause.
On September 13th, Barnett gave a statewide television and radio address in which he announced that the state faced its “gravest crisis since the War Between the States.” He spoke of an invisible “they” comprised of “professional agitators and the unfriendly liberal press and other trouble makers” who were “pouring across our borders intent upon instigating strife among our people.” He warned that “paid propagandists are continually hammering away at us in the hope that they can succeed in bringing about a division among us.” Barnett implored white Mississippians to stand up to “the moral degradation, to the shame and the ruin which have faced all others who have lacked the courage to defend their beliefs.” That line surely resonated with the descendants of their Confederate ancestors who had experienced the humiliation of defeat and occupation by the Union Army during the brief period of Reconstruction. Never again, was Barnett’s message.
On September 29th, Barnett made a dramatic appearance at the Ole Miss-Kentucky football game. At half time, Barnett walked to the middle of the field, took the microphone and, to the great delight of 41,000 all-white fans, now up on their feet and waving their Confederate flags, uttered the most memorable sixteen words of his political career:
“I love Mississippi,” Barnett thundered, dragging out the “love” for maximum effect. “I love her people, her customs! And I love and respect her heritage.” Between sentences, the crowd roared back. “Never, Never, Never, n-o-o-o Never.” “Never shall our emblem go, from Colonel Reb to Old Black Joe.” “Two-four-six-eight we don’t want to integrate.” Barnett soaked up the adulation he so desperately craved
Behind the scenes, Barnett had been negotiating with the Kennedy Administration to admit Meredith in a manner that would allow him to save face with the rank-and-file white Mississippians who were ready to bear arms in defense of their “customs” and their “heritage.” He understood, deep down, that the law was not on his side, not after watching how President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to secure the admission of the Little Rock Nine to Central High School just five years before. Intoxicated by the crowd at the football game, Barnett reneged on his commitment to admit Meredith after Kennedy told him he would not allow him to stage a made-for-television event where federal troops “forcibly removed” him at gun point.
On the evening of September 30th, the Ole Miss campus staged an armed revolt against the 500 or so federal marshals and other law enforcement officials that Kennedy had dispatched to secure Meredith’s admission on Monday. The confrontation worsened, as hundreds of armed white resisters from surrounding states joined the Battle of Oxford. It was as if somehow, almost one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, this would offer a second chance for a new Confederate army to get it right.
By the time dawn broke that Monday morning, two people, a local resident and a French reporter, both of whom were white, had been killed. Almost two hundred federal marshals had been injured, with almost thirty suffering gunshot wounds. At 8 a.m., James Meredith registered for his fall classes. But Ross Barnett had endeared himself to the state’s most devoted adherents of Mississippi’s special brand of Jim Crow. He had resisted the federal government through armed force. Barnett emerged from his stand-off with the Kennedy Administration a hero, and would inspire a young governor next door, George Corley Wallace, Jr., to “stand in the schoolhouse door” a year later to prevent, unsuccessfully, the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood as the first two black undergraduates to attend the University of Alabama.
Less than one year into his term, Donald Trump is a historically unpopular president. Since taking office his approval ratings have consistently hovered somewhere between 35 and 40 percent. His behavior as president is no different than his behavior as a candidate – crude, disrespectful of the office he holds, disdainful of the rule of law, and ignorant of the true consequences of the policies he promised “his people.” Above all, he is a racial demagogue whose public commentary is steeped in hateful rhetoric towards those who have dared to criticize him. Like Ross Barnett, Donald Trump promised his “populist” base that he would look out for them, not the “elites.” Like Ross Barnett, Donald Trump openly ridicules anyone and anything that threatens his narrow view of how the world should work, and routinely suggests that conspiratorial forces are at work to deny him the greatness so obvious to those that, come hell or high water, will support him no matter what. Like Ross Barnett, Donald Trump takes great pride in the unapologetic stream of bigotry, stench, corruption, and sheer cruelty that flows from his administration almost every second of every hour of every day.
Where Donald Trump has succeeded like no modern president before him is in fanning the flames of racial and cultural resentment in a manner so obvious and so flagrant that somewhere in Jim Crow Governor Heaven Ross Barnett, George Wallace and Orval Faubus are beaming with pride. At every point in his presidency where Trump has felt cornered and maligned he has turned to Chapter One, Page One, in the Jim Crow Governor’s Manual – find the “other” of the moment and place the weight of the world’s problem on the shoulders of his enemies, all of whom he defines by skin color, religion and, to update the Jim Crow model, gender and sexual orientation. Unable to make good on your promises to revive outdated industries, provide “beautiful” healthcare for all by stripping 25 million or so Americans of their health insurance or develop a meaningful infrastructure program? Ban transgender soldiers from the military. Deport the DACA beneficiaries. Lash out against Gold Star families for suggesting that he is insensitive to their plight and their needs – and make sure they are persons of color. Encourage violence against your opponents, especially if they are women or minorities – or preferably both. Label women who claim you sexually assaulted or harassed them as liars and “wackos.” Pick fights with African American members of Congress. Tell gay men and women that they don’t deserve protection from workplace discrimination. Threaten to revoke broadcast rights from the broadcast media or order them to fire their African American commentators who criticize you. Label black professional athletes “sons of bitches” for peacefully protesting police brutality. Pardon law enforcement officials for engaging in racist policing. Stay silent when white Americans commit acts of terrorism against other Americans; but attempt to ban Mexicans and Muslims, all of whom are either “rapists” or “terrorists,” from entering the United States. Label the news media that you cannot control or manipulate the “the enemies of the people.”
And lie. All the time.
In late August, President Trump, having reached another low after reassuring the white Christian supremacists who marched in Charlottesville less than two weeks before that there were actually some “very fine people” among them, traveled to Phoenix for one of his Nuremberg-style rallies. He decided it was time to take a public stance in defense of Confederate memorials, whipping up the cheering crowd by telling them that an omnipotent, invisible “they” were trying to take away “our culture” and “our history” by calling for the removal of statues paying tribute to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Forget, for a moment, whether it even makes sense for this insular New Yorker to come to the defense of the Lost Cause in a state that did not exist until 1912. A month later, Trump visited Huntsville, Alabama, where he entertained another arena full of his supporters by coming to the defense of “our history and our heritage,” and reminded the crowd that “they” had total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything “we” stand for.” We? Really?
But perhaps Trump knew that Alabama gave him the fifth largest margin of victory in the 2016 election, all the more impressive when you consider that 28 percent of Alabama’s population is African American, and none of the other states in front of Alabama had a black population of more than 3.5 percent. Perhaps Trump even knew that Alabama is one of only three states to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. Or that Arizona repealed Martin Luther King, Jr. day in 1987, only to reinstate it in 1992 after the National Football League, ironically enough, suggested it might find another place to hold the Super Bowl.
Whatever Donald Trump lacks in intellectual acumen there is no doubt that he understands the central place of racial resentment in the hearts and minds of the white working and underclasses that form so much of the base of his core support. Trump knew exactly what he was doing when, for five years, he relentlessly pushed the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. As recently as August 2016, 72 percent of registered Republicans believed it. Who knows if Trump even believed his own lie? He knew that there were millions of people out there who would because they wanted to, not because it was true.
Trump did not so much create the racism now on open display in our politics and culture as he did liberate sleeper cells of millions of angry whites emboldened by his authoritarian embrace of white identity politics. All that matters for Donald Trump is the message at the core of his campaign – you are white, you have been ignored, you deserve better and that I will restore your rightful place in the social order. Just like Ross Barnett, Donald Trump understands the power that hate and fear filtered through a skewed racial prism have among disaffected whites while rewarding the donor classes of Republican politics with plutocratic policies. Donald Trump is not some unorthodox free thinker bringing fresh energy to a stale and tired office. No, he is just a conventional Southern politician, albeit one with a New York accent, from a past that too many Americans believed was dead and buried. Donald Trump is President Jim Crow.