Southern racism: How much has changed; how much remains the same?

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Occasionally, when questioned about his feelings regarding racism in the Southern part of the United States, considering the Jim Crow era before Brown vs. the Board of Education and the passage of the Civil Rights acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968, the writer has a qualified but standard response. 

The qualification is that what was often portrayed as a Southern phenomenon back then had and even now has mirror images in many places outside the South AND that while there has been some obvious absolute progressive changes since the 1950s, in relative terms Black people are in the same socioeconomic position. Beyond that, his response is that while he tries to remain optimistic, he will not be fooled by any artificial trappings of progress. 

Racism is not only alive and well in many areas, there is a definite upsurge of manifest racism since the time Barack Obama was elected President and Donald Trump was loosed on the American political public. A page from Black American history helps to illustrate this, showing that not much has changed, that much remains the same on the racial front. 

In 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, 101 senators and representatives from 11 Southern states banded together, wrote and publicly issued the “Southern Manifesto.” This document was a declaration and pledge that they would do whatever was necessary to oppose the implementation of public school racial desegregation. Through this document they were not just expressing the sentiment of most white Southerners. They were also reflecting the actions in their states to prevent the desegregation of the schools, including legal maneuvering, the closing of schools, and often acts of violent. (Other than the lynchings that were ever threatening, there were no more apparent examples of Southern racism.) Jim Crow had become the Southern way of life, put in place following the overthrow of Reconstruction, which is another story in and of itself.

From the time of the removal of federal troops in the late 1870s, Southern white men had mounted all types of tactics – legal and illegal, trickery and fraud, threats and violence – to return control of Southern politics to white Confederates.

There were no exceptions. It happened in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Missouri. 

Not only were citizens denied the right to vote, governments were overthrown in at least North Carolina and Louisiana to remove the Black and/or sympathetic white officials who had been elected. Conservative whites were determined to oppose the idea of Black citizens being their political equals when it came to voting and holding office. They were determined to oppose the idea of Black citizens owning property or being paid the same as whites. Places of public accommodation, entertainment, and public service were strictly segregated. They were determined to enjoy that kind of white world. 

It was that type of condition which the 101 white congressmen were trying to preserve with the “Southern Manifesto.” Their emersion in the ideology of white supremacy had them believing they had the right to rule, that they were God’s gift to mankind, and that things were not to be changed, lest the will of God be upset.

When fast-forwarding to 2024, it is clear that state legislatures and state officials are out to dilute the voting strength of Black people and to wrest from Black municipal officials the powers to which they are entitled by the states’ constitutions and laws. 

This year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has even convened conservative, white Republican governors in a pseudo-insurrectionary racist call to defend the southern border. When one listens to the rhetoric and plans of conservative white leaders, it becomes clear that they would turn back the clock to the Jim Crow days.

In this effort, they are supported by the so-called alt-right, the MAGA-Republicans, and right-wing media operatives. They are then readily backed by white militia groups and by other armed racist individuals, who seem more than eager to use violence to advance their agenda.

The fact that racism provides privilege and advantage, explains why it is supported by many, if not most white Americans. They may often remain silent, but are supportive. Furthermore, there are many communities where residents, who are not white by ethnicity, join with whites as oppressors in order to enhance their own privileges and advantages.

This brings us back to the 1860s declarations of secession, the “Southern Manifesto” of 1956, the contemporary threats of secession, and other initiatives of white racists, determined to remain entrenched in power and privilege. That is merely the history of this phenomenon called racism. 

Not much has changed; much remains the same. Racism, and more specifically, white supremacy, is an ideology for which many would die, even in 2024. 

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Southern racism: How much has changed; how much remains the same?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 11, 2024