Blogs > Cliopatria > In Which I Sound Like a Broken Record

Jun 9, 2010 6:15 am


In Which I Sound Like a Broken Record



Elizabeth Wydra is chief counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center,"a think tank, law firm, and action center dedicated to showing how the text and history of the Constitution support progressive outcomes." The text and history of the Constitution: the three-fifths compromise, Plessy v. Ferguson, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, all those good things that lead to progressive outcomes. Also, steel wool is delicious in cookies.

So let's examine the Constitutional Accountability Center's premises in action.

At the Huffington Post this week, Wydra discusses Tea Party proposals to repeal constitutional amendments -- not the 13th and 15th, by the way -- adopted after the Civil War. The repeal of those amendments, she concludes, would be"pure folly":
The constitutional changes made in the aftermath of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery wrote into the Constitution the promises of equality made in the Declaration of Independence, and gave the federal government the power to ensure that these promises were kept...

To be sure, all of these amendments shifted some power from the states to Washington. But is that a bad thing? Tea Partiers appear to assume that when it comes to government, the more local the better. History tells us that this is not always so--certainly the federal government was honoring rather than denigrating our constitutional values when it finally stepped in to stop systematic racial discrimination in the South.

Start with the remarkable premise that the Declaration of Independence promised racial equality while somehow also complaining that the British king's colonial officials had incited slaves and Indians to take up arms against whites. ("He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.") Free lunch to Elizabeth Wydra if she can show me the part where the Declaration of Independence offers"promises of equality" that were made good by the 14th Amendment.

And so on, but here's the part that always amazes me. In the mental universe of the contemporary progressive, racial oppression ended in the United States because the federal government"stepped in to stop systematic racial discrimination in the South." Government is good. It fixes things. The rest of us just hang out at the tap, waiting for government to turn on the water so we can take a drink.

In this vision, a whole historical landscape vanishes. Ida B. Wells and E.D. Nixon and Robert F. Williams and Daisy Bates and Fred Shuttlesworth and SNCC and SCLC and CORE and on and on and on: it all just disappears. The Declaration of Independence, of all things, promised racial equality, and the Constitution delivered it after the Civil War, via the enlightened efforts of the government that had marched Anthony Burns to a ship in Boston Harbor (because the Declaration of Independence had promised him racial equality, or something). Text on paper made freedom. "It took a president to get it done."

This is history with no history in it, the left-wing version of the right-wing story that Thomas Jefferson's slaves loved Monticello so much that they were terrified by the prospect of emancipation. It's remarkable that the left and right end up in such different contemporary places when they start from the same set of founding fantasies.

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Chris Bray - 6/13/2010

I don't disagree, and I think a lot of social resistance was eaten by a series of hegemonic performances. (And how about that sentence?) But I think we have a long way to go to make sense of how all of that resistance and deflection/redirection worked.

Still, in case, not MLK made a deal with LBJ, or enlightened and benevolent government reversed a century of racism.


Jonathan Dresner - 6/12/2010

There are periods when that kind of social tension seems productive -- if painfully slow, and sometimes actually painful -- but if resistance isn't paired with some kind of appeal to, if you'll excuse the term, hegemonic ethical standards or cultural narratives, then it's more likely to be met with greater repression rather than relaxation. Hegemonic exhaustion certainly does happen (British India, for example, or Soviet Russia) but it rarely works without massive contributing factors from other sources.


Chris Bray - 6/12/2010

Okay, so: I definitely don't mean that. Maybe the best way to say this is that I don't mean to describe a long Civil Rights Movement; I mean to describe a long civil rights movement. I'm not arguing for the role of a conscious and complete leftist vanguard. I'm arguing for a long presence of social tension and daily resistance to white supremacy. Probably the best example of this kind of narrative is Robin D.G. Kelly's Race Rebels, especially the terrific chapter on racial conflict and public transportation.


Jonathan Dresner - 6/12/2010

It's not the journal, but the magazine, Historically Speaking. Last April (10:2), articles by Eric Arnesen and David Chappell


Chris Bray - 6/11/2010

Looking at the journal, but no luck. What issue?


Jonathan Dresner - 6/11/2010

Just as an aside, a recent issue of Historically Speaking from the Historical Society had a pair of articles on the "Long Civil Rights movement" one of which did a fairly thorough job dismantling it (though I'd defer to experts about the success of the argument) and one of which noted the remarkably conservative and varied approaches taken by civil rights leaders in the aftermath of the successes of the '60s.

If your institution has Project Muse access, you can read them.


Chris Bray - 6/11/2010

Much appreciated, and it's been a pleasure.

Regarding your question, "absent the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act...", I'd like to change the question a bit and answer in a different direction. I don't think those federal actions have no significance. I just think we need to find a deeper story about where they came from -- about the social world that drive the Supreme Court from Plessy to Brown. I think that, to a substantial degree, black resistance made white supremacy untenable, and government conceded those emerging realities. But that's a story that will sustain whole generations of scholarship -- it's great stuff.

W.E.B. DuBois argued in the 1930s that the Civil War hadn't ended slavery. But he didn't argue that the Civil War had no role in the end of slavery; rather, he wrote that white America had gone to war with itself, and slaves took the opportunity of the resulting chaos and loss of control to substantially self-liberate, walking away in a great "general strike." That's still an interpretation that doesn't generate much support, but it does a version of what I think historians are doing, now: it places the actions of government and the agency of ordinary African-Americans in a complex relationship.

This sort of story will be particularly interesting with someone like LBJ, who -- if I recall correctly, and it's been a while since I looked at this question -- started his congressional career with no clear interest in challenging segregation.

Thanks again -- I enjoyed the discussion.


Ralph M. Hitchens - 6/11/2010

This has been a fine, many-threaded discussion, very enlightening for a non-academic. I guess my questions for Chris boils down to a few: absent the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act (representing the federal government's involvement in the civil rights movement) would American society look and function something like it does today? Should we not memorialize King to the extent we do, or lavish praise on LBJ? (As I recall, E. D. Nixon seems to have jump-started King's active involvement in the movement.) If there's an untold story, I hope to read it one day. Thanks for the constructive responses.


Ralph E. Luker - 6/11/2010

If you make allowances, Kluger and Branch are among the best books on the movement. Given the fact that it is now 35 years old, Kluger is excellent. Branch's trilogy is beautifully written, but extraordinarily careless in detail. Put your finger down on any page, give me time, and I'll find the errors.


Chris Bray - 6/11/2010

It's hard to say, but I increasingly think that the Constitution is infinitely manipulable. See Ralph Luker's comment above, too, but the apparent history is that declarations of constitutional rights and government enforcement of constitutional rights have frequently been very different things. I don't claim to have a settled answer to your question, but I think at the moment that the Constitution is an instrument in human hands -- it has meant what one party or another felt like making it mean.


Bryan Becker - 6/11/2010

I didn't suggest otherwise. It would have been more painful and lengthier without federal government involvement.

Well, the text of the constitution and the actions of federal government are two different things. Are you blaming the Constitution for the Court's inability to back up their decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia or their odd reading of the 14th Amendment in Plessy v. Ferguson? (I get your point on the 3/5th compromise).

The central question being: are you suggesting the Constitution supports reactionary outcomes, supports both reactionary and progressive outcomes or the Constitution is completely void of support for either kind?


Chris Bray - 6/11/2010

Okay, so. With some time to devote to this, I'll start by shamelessly cadging a few paragraphs from Bernard Bailyn's great "The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson":

"...the earliest historical writings that follow a great and controversial event are still a part of the event itself. At that near point in time the outcome is still in some degree in question, the struggle in an extended form is still alive, emotions are still deeply engaged; and because of this immediacy, indeterminacy, and involvement, attempts at explanations of what happened tend to be heroic in character. That is, they are highly moral: the struggle they present is between good and bad; and they are highly personified: individuals count overwhelmingly; their personal qualities appear to make the difference between victory and defeat.
Then in the course of time the historian's angle of vision shifts...The personalism therefore fades and in its place the relatedness of the whole flow of events from the past into the present -- the fit and interconnectedness of events -- stands out. The historian is struck not so much by the personal decisions and personal qualities of the actors as by the inevitability with which the past flowed through the event and became the present, and by the natural way in which people and conditions that sought to impede this flow into the present were swept away...
"And then at last there is a third and final turn in the relation between the viewer and the event...Now the historian, in his analysis and description, is no longer a partisan. He has no stake in the outcome. He can now embrace the whole of the event, see it from all sides. What impresses him most are the latent limitations within which everyone involved was obliged to act; the inescapable boundaries of action; the blindness of the actors -- in a word, the tragedy of the event." (From the preface, pp. viii-ix)

It seems to me that the current generation of historians is transitioning from that earliest approach to the history of the Civil RIghts Movement -- pushing into a more fully worked story of events that were bigger than the heroic figures of the first histories. It's not a kind of the old history was dumb, and the new stuff is good moment -- it's just a new moment, a new relationship to the material. We're discovering a bigger story, discovering the fit and interconnectedness of events.

I have two research interests: first, political violence and institutional contests in the post-Revolutionary United States; second, post-emancipation racial violence and the long Civil Rights Moment. It seems to me that those are very similar topics, in that both examine questions that were supposed to be settled by war but that kept coming back up, or that generated new questions. And I think we're still beginning to figure out what really happened in each of those long moments.

You asked, "Was I misinformed?" by popular histories of the Civil Rights Movement. I don't think it's a matter of being misinformed or reading good history versus bad history -- I just think we're learning our way through the bigger story, and the heroic MLK convinced LBJ to complete the task of racial justice narrative is on its way to a very exciting and very necessary recontextualization.

I really hope that makes any sense at all...


Chris Bray - 6/10/2010

This question:

"Not an academic, I learned about the movement from reading books of "popular history" by Richard Kluger, Taylor Branch, et. al. -- was I misinformed?"


Chris Bray - 6/10/2010

It was a process that was a century long -- it was extremely lengthy and deeply painful.

The federal government can be used as an agent of good, or an agent of harm. It's mostly been the latter. One of the things I'm trying to say here is that government has no inherent tendency to do good -- I'm responding to the language about how "the the text and history of the Constitution support progressive outcomes."


Chris Bray - 6/10/2010

Sorry, I meant the part about understanding the Civil Rights Movement by reading Taylor Branch...

But I appreciate this answer, and yeah.


Bryan Becker - 6/10/2010

I'm not sure I'm following your point. The argument was not who caused the Civil Rights Movement, but to show the federal government can be used as an agent of good.

It seems to me to be entirely reasonable. If the federal government was powerless to stop segregation, the Civil Rights Movement would have to force local authorities to change- a process that certainly have been more painful and lengthy.


Ralph E. Luker - 6/10/2010

I'm not exactly sure what the question is, here, but Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP LDEF were clearly not agents of the federal government. It was not even until relatively late in the struggle through the courts that the Justice Department was likely to file a amicus brief in support of 1) equality and 2) desegregation. For a decade and a half, the ICC was on record requiring desegregation in interstate trade and, yet, there was *no* federal intervention to enforce the ruling.


Chris Bray - 6/10/2010

Busy today, but I'll post a longish response tonight. In the meantime, Ralph Luker knows *much* more about Taylor Branch than I do. Ralph, do you want to weigh in? Apologies if I'm asking you to do something you don't want to do, but this is a question you could answer better than I can.


Ralph M. Hitchens - 6/10/2010

The fact that I'm what's called a "progressive" doesn't mean that I reflexively espouse any "construction" that puts federal action at the center of a "narrative," to the exclusion of the civil rights movement. Not an academic, I learned about the movement from reading books of "popular history" by Richard Kluger, Taylor Branch, et. al. -- was I misinformed? With all honor to their long struggle, I don't think southern blacks would have been able to overturn Jim Crow without federal help, and certainly not without the great legal spadework by Thurgood Marshall & his colleagues that led to the Brown decision. I also have this notion that the "great migration" of southern blacks to northern cities during the first half of the 20th century had something to do with it, although I haven't quite worked it out.

As for Jefferson's words, they were given lasting significance by Abraham Lincoln, as Garry Wills observed some years ago. I don't think it wrong to believe that Jefferson's rhetoric outran his lifestyle, which -- who knows? -- may have been intentional to some degree.


Chris Bray - 6/9/2010

...that I'm fascinated by the language you use. Jefferson "let slip some words that fatally undermined his world." If he hadn't let those words slip...what? We'd still have slavery? His world couldn't have been fatally undermined without his help? I don't think you really think that, but I think your phrasing is more problematic than you noticed.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that you see Thomas Jefferson's words at the foundation of racial justice; I insist on the centrality of the millions of ordinary people who fought white supremacy for the long course of an agonizing century. The federal government took the field for racial justice in the ninth inning, and it played the first eight innings on the other side. I decline to take a lesson in the decency of government out of that narrative. It beats me why that's become a right-wing claim.


Chris Bray - 6/9/2010

So, Ralph, which words in the Declaration of Independence promise racial equality to everyone? I think I know which ones you're going to suggest, and I'm happy to have that discussion -- you have to read the whole document, and notice what its author and signers did in the real world. Full context, not phrase-grabbing.

I would argue that a century of determined African-American resistance, at very great cost, destroyed white supremacy. The federal government codified an emerging reality -- it acknowledged that reality far more than it created it.

This bit about "we progressives" just makes me shrug. What I know is that, time and time again, I see these constructions that make federal action the very center of a narrative that doesn't mention the long Civil Rights Movement. It seems to me that the "black awakening" narrative persists in popular discussion, despite the heroic scholarship of a long line of historians who have expanded our understanding of the long and deeply organized fight against racial oppression in the United States. MLK is still about ninety percent of the public story.

At the very least, you have to notice that Elizabeth Wydra has written that the Constitution created racial justice, which Martin Luther King brought to its culmination through the efforts of the federal government. That's just what she said, and you can't bristle it away.

Anyway, I have to slip away back to my tea party, now -- my controllers want me to take careful notes on their seminar about destroying all things that are decent and noble. It's exhausting work, but at least we have the gratification of seeing all that progress die.


Ralph M. Hitchens - 6/9/2010

I would be in awe of this insight, were it to bear the remotest connection to reality. Are you suggesting that the federal government had no role in ending state-sanctioned discrimination in the South? Do you believe we progressives dismiss the accomplishments of the black pioneers like E. D. Nixon et. al., rather than appreciating how the government belatedly built upon their sacrifices?

Do you also believe that the plain meaning of the words in the Declaration of Independence is not pretty clear to all of us? So what if Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owning hypocrite; he let slip some words that fatally undermined his world and inspire us (and most of the world) even today.

Perhaps you should quietly slip back to your tea party.

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