Last week in this space, I telegraphed my intention regarding this week’s “Red Dirt,” i.e., the one you’re now reading. This being my final column of 2016 (next week, Weld continues its annual custom of taking a week off from print at the tail end of the year), I proposed to devote it to “a speculative look forward at what 2017 has in store” for Birmingham and Alabama — and, though I didn’t advertise it in advance, for Weld, too.
Well, so much for my powers of prediction, because it turns out that I was wrong about what I was going to write about this week. Not that such a setback will deter me from further speculations about the present and future of our city and state — for better or worse, such setbacks never have before — but I expect that they will be offered just as well, and perhaps more fittingly, in Weld’s first issue of the new year. (Whether they will be received similarly well is a matter that I long ago accepted as beyond my control; I just write ‘em, as Mark Twain said, or should have.)
That’s my excuse, anyway, for weaseling my way into another week of reflection before committing my speculations to paper. And, as an old lawyer acquaintance of mine liked to say, it has the added advantage of being true.
On the other hand, the only real excuse I need is that I simply decided to write about something else this week. Such are the quotidian joys of being one’s own boss, for each and every one of which I am consciously and constantly thankful and grateful. The opportunity to express myself on this page is high on that list, and the only thing it costs you, the reader, is indulging me occasionally — or, as is your prerogative, not — in my preoccupation with the ebbing and flowing of the tides of history.
In other words, before looking forward at 2017, I want to take a look back — way back, as you’re about to see, if such a prospect hasn’t scared you off already. If that’s not warning enough, I’ll add that it’s a highly selective and purposeful look back, by way of getting at something that weighed progressively on my mind and heart as the recent presidential campaign season unfolded, and has taken on additional weight in the aftermath of the November election.
This is not intended as a partisan political statement, meaning that I fault the Republican and Democratic parties in roughly equal measure for the strange and unsettling farce into which our electoral process and the governance of our nation have descended. It is partisan in a purely human sense, meaning that I hold certain views and opinions — of politics, of society, of faith — that are firmly pro-human, as opposed to what I see emerging from the meat grinder that is American politics.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
That’s something else that Mark Twain said, or should have. Actually, in this case, too, he didn’t say it, or probably didn’t — which has no appreciable bearing on the essential truth it conveys, which has to do with the immutable patterns of history, as reflected in the remarkable tendency of people and nations and circumstances and events to conform to something like the physical law of equal and opposite reaction.
So here’s the history part:
One hundred and eighty-three years ago this month, a group of prominent American abolitionists founded the National Anti-Slavery Society. The English Parliament had outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire earlier that year, and the new American group was dedicated to achieving the same objective in the United States — at the time a fledgling republic not much more than a half-century old.
To that end, the new society’s mission was, in the words of historian Stephen B. Oates, to “coordinate the work of all abolitionist groups and organizations [and] circulate books, sermons, and other antislavery tracts in an effort to convert the entire country to abolitionism.”
With the formation of the national society, Oates wrote in 1970, the most intense moral crusade in nineteenth-century America, one that was to haunt the American conscience and arouse latent racism everywhere in the land, was irrevocably underway.
I want to come back to the latter clause of that sentence (“haunt the American conscience…arouse latent racism,” etc.) later in this column. But first, I want to consider the “physics” of what we might term the official birth of abolitionism in America — the formalization of the desire to do away with an institution that perpetuated the morally repugnant idea that an entire race of human beings could be bought, traded and bred like horses and cattle.
As Oates implied, the rise of the anti-slavery movement set in motion a chain of actions and reactions that indeed proved to have irrevocable effects. The first, as he noted, was the immediate and sustained backlash of racism against the idea, not that blacks were equal to whites (that would come later), but that they simply were deserving of the common courtesy of not being constrained to live their lives in enforced servitude.
Arising from that backlash, the reaction was the violent abolitionism of John Brown in the late 1850s. Which heightened the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War. Which, among other things, prompted — three decades after the creation of the Anti-Slavery Society — President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent passage of the 14th Amendment. Which, following Lincoln’s assassination, opened the door for a “Reconstruction” that virtually assured the perpetuation of virulent racial division in the South — and the sublimation of less obviously virulent racial division in the rest of the country — for generations to come.
Speaking more locally, one of the reactions to Reconstruction was the Alabama Constitution of 1901. Wrought from the unholy alliance of South Alabama landowners and the absentee industrialists who owned Birmingham, that foul document — under which our fair state continues to operate, in a form that has been amended hundreds of times, but never adequately — codified the superiority of the white race in general, though in practice it isolated poor whites from the levers of political power just about as effectively as it did blacks.
In Alabama in general and Birmingham in particular, reaction to the increasingly stringent assertion of white supremacy — Jim Crow laws and the later segregation ordinances; a rise in activity by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations; intimidation of, and acts of violence against, black citizens who claimed their civil rights — took the form of the Civil Rights Movement. But even as the Movement progressed over the course of two or three decades, and many of its broader goals achieved, the backlash against it was building.
And here we are: Birmingham is a city that is 75 percent black, and in which one in every three residents lives below the poverty level. Projecting conservatively, that means that probably another third of the population is only a paycheck or two — or a sick child, or a broken-down automobile, or an unexpected emergency — away from being on the uphill side of the poverty line.
If it’s true that our city is showing signs of prospering in unprecedented ways, it’s at least equally true that the divisions that have always held Birmingham back — divisions of race, of class, of financial wherewithal, social outlook and political opinion — are as present in our community as ever. If we don’t see that, and begin to act accordingly, then we’re not going to be as well positioned for the future as we’d like to think, here in the flush of our latest bout with progress.
That’s especially true, I think, given the state of our national politics. And that’s part of my point here, that our Chief Executive-to-be is where he is because he caught a powerful wave. Whether by design or by accident (or, perhaps and most likely, equal parts both), Donald Trump tapped into a certain feeling among a certain segment of white voters.
Now: I’m not talking about racists here, a point I want to illustrate by relating something of a conversation I had online over last weekend. I was talking to a friend I’ve known since our childhood in north Alabama, and with whom I’ve always had cordial, if pointed, political differences. My friend, retired from a career as a college professor, was never going to be a Hillary voter, but ended up voting for Trump, with a reluctance that was more than overcome by his disgust with candidate Clinton’s characterization of Trump voters (or at least many of them) as “deplorables.”
Our recent conversation was proceeding along the lines I’m speaking of, the lines that divide people — most notably, working class blacks and working class whites — whose economic status, interests, and prospects are highly similar. At some point, I characterized Trump’s election as “the culmination of white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and [the prospect of] a disappearing white majority.”
That’s something that I believe to be demonstrably true. But my friend had a response that hits the whole “deplorables” issue head-on.
“I have to take exception to the left’s characterization of working class whites as inherently misogynistic and racist,” he said. “I have seen far too many working-class dads struggling to send talented daughters through elite undergraduate and graduate institutions, or lovingly raise mixed-race grandchildren, to buy into those stereotypes.
“I think much of it stems from what Rockwell described as an undifferentiated blob — people who have unbridled contempt for a segment of the population that they have not bothered to understand, and don’t care to.”
I did not — and do not — have much of a rejoinder for that, because I see those things myself. I don’t have to look very far in my circle of family and friends and acquaintances who are doing those things, and who have the same hopes and fears as anyone else who works for a living. And unless their concerns are addressed — and unless that gap is bridged — there is no hope for genuine American greatness.
Still, I can’t ignore the tides of racial history, nor candidate Trump’s open exploitation of the racial divide that has eaten at the heart of the American Dream for most of our history. Nearly 200 years have passed since a group of Americans came together to confront the moral abomination of slavery, and America — and Alabama, and Birmingham — is still grappling over issues of race, still falling short of the defining challenge of our founding: to be a beacon of freedom and opportunity.
When will we do better?
When will it be too late?
Or is it already?