To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
July 3, 2017
RE: JFK, slavery by another name, and Charleena Lyles
By Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice
John F. Kennedy made his reputation as a cultured, intellectual politician with publication of Profiles in Courage. His book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957, and Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator, went on to become President. The book is supposed to be a series of portraits of particularly courageous American politicians who stood up against prevailing moods and suffered ill consequences as a result. Kennedy praises them for standing on principle.
Today Kennedy is still regarded as one of the most revered Democratic Party politicians. Those running for office love to repeat, "Ask not what your country ..." But what did this imperialist chieftain actually stand for? We cannot assess everything Kennedy did and didn't do in this article. But a few comments about his book may be in order given today's discussion of rights for African-Americans and about impeachment. Bourgeois reviewers of Kennedy's book today focus mainly on the question of ghostwriting -- who actually wrote the book? But whoever formulated the actual words, Kennedy is the one who took credit for them. The main issue is content.
One of the most prominent examples discussed by Kennedy is Edmund G. Ross, "the man who saved a President." Ross cast what was probably the deciding vote against removing President Andrew .Johnson from office following Johnson's impeachment. The basic issue at stake was the Reconstruction of the former slave states of the South -- whether they would easily be allowed to rejoin the Union, as Johnson favored, or they would be forced to accept equal rights for former slaves before readmission, as favored by the Radical Republicans in Congress. The Radicals proposed a series of laws and constitutional amendments granting rights to the former slaves and demanded their acceptance by the former slave states. But Johnson vetoed them. The Radicals then overrode his veto in many cases, as they comprised a two-thirds majority.
But Johnson was still able to sabotage Reconstruction simply by the fact that, as commander in chief of the armed forces, he was able to tell occupying forces in the South what to do and what not. The head of the War Department, Edmund Stanton, was sympathetic to the Radicals, but Johnson could threaten him with firing if he went too far. Johnson had inherited Stanton from the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. He was reluctant to break up Lincoln's Cabinet, but was determined to pursue a policy of little or no Reconstruction.
To bolster Stanton and allow Reconstruction to succeed, the Radicals passed the Tenure in Office Act. This act made it illegal for the President to fire a Cabinet officer like Stanton who had been nominated for office by the President (in this case, Lincoln) and confirmed in office by the Senate, unless he sought and obtained approval from the Senate. Johnson vetoed this Act, but the Radicals then overrode his veto, and it became an established law. Unwilling to accept any limitations of his power, Johnson proceeded to fire Stanton without Congressional approval. This provoked a constitutional crisis, as Congress was faced with a president who openly, brazenly broke the law. Stanton barricaded himself in his office, refusing to vacate, and Congressional leaders then felt compelled to resolve the issue. They must either back down and allow Johnson to make a mockery of Reconstruction, or face up to the crisis and try to remove Johnson from office.
Radical leaders in Congress chose the latter. The House impeached Johnson, and the case proceeded to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority was required to remove him from office. Radicals in the Senate were confident they could bring this about, since two-thirds had recently voted to override Johnson's veto of the Tenure in Office Act. Now Johnson had not only vetoed the Act, he had openly broken the law after it became the constitutionally guaranteed law of the land.
Kennedy focuses on Edmund G. Ross as the central character in this drama. Ross was not the only Radical to renege on his political credentials and vote to acquit Johnson, and Kennedy praises all of them. But Ross was the most prominent among them, and removal hinged on his vote. Kennedy goes on for pages about the pressure on Ross from other Republicans, from Radical leaders, from his home state, etc., and how wonderful it was for Ross to resist all of this. Then he mourns over how terrible it was that Ross had to endure scorn and have his political career ended.
The way Kennedy tells it, Reconstruction was a terrible vengeance inflicted on the South by rascally carpetbaggers from the North. He scorns Radical leaders like Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler. And what about the poor freedmen, the freed slaves of the South who were hoping for some assistance overcoming the effects of slavery? Kennedy never mentions them or shows any sympathy for them. His sympathies are reserved for the former slaveholders and for Johnson. In previous chapters as well Kennedy praises Northern politicians like Daniel Webster who organized the Compromise of 1850, which allowed slavery to continue to expand westward. Wasn't it great, Kennedy opines, to compromise with the slaveholders? It never occurs to him to think about the people who had to endure another ten years of servitude.
The other focus of Kennedy's sympathy is the presidency. If the Radicals had succeeded in removing Johnson from office, supposedly the presidency would have been weakened, Congress would have become supreme, and the delicate system of checks and balances between the branches of government torn to shreds. Well, so what? One of the branches is always supreme, and it wouldn't be the end of the world for that to switch from the executive to the legislative. As it was, because Johnson was acquitted, the precedent was set that would-be tyrants like Donald Trump would have the power to fire anyone they please without any check, much less a balance.
The really comical part is when Kennedy mourns over the poor bourgeois politicians who were never reelected to their Senate seats because they had voted to acquit Johnson. As if losing one's seat in the Senate were the worst fate that could befall a person. What about the ex-slaves who were condemned to live without civil and political rights, subject to the will of the Ku Klux Klan? And as a matter of fact, losing their Senate seat did not mean the end of their careers; Ross was eventually appointed governor of the territory of New Mexico, for example. Kennedy considers that a terrible come-down, but being a governor was certainly a better fate than that of the ex-slaves.
The fact that Reconstruction was supported by the vast majority of
Northerners and by many Southerners as well -- at least the ex-slaves
-- means nothing to Kennedy. Who cares about democracy and the will of
the people? The only virtue he praises is courage. But in fact, when
Republicans like Ross turned their back on Reconstruction and voted to
acquit Johnson, they were not exhibiting courage. They were giving up
on their own political program, negating their own votes overriding his
vetoes, and guaranteeing the supremacy of an executive headed by a
stubborn ignoramus. By knuckling under to Johnson and the presidency,
they exhibited profiles in cowardice, not courage. <>
By Joseph Green, Detroit Workers' Voice
In his book Profiles in Courage in 1957, JFK set forward the racist version of what happened during the Reconstruction period in the South after the Civil War. As opposed to what is said in JFK's account, the former slaveholders may have lost the Civil War, but they aimed to maintain their extreme exploitation and oppression of the black masses in other forms. They bitterly resisted Reconstruction and the activity of freed slaves to transform Southern life. JFK's depiction of history went right along with the lies propagated by the racists to justify these crimes.
The communist movement in the US had quite a different view of
Reconstruction, but the racist view was widespread among academic and
bourgeois historians at the time. In 1935, the lengthy and
well-documented book Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward
a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to
Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 appeared, written by the
black activist and historian W.E.B. DuBois. It was, however, generally
ignored by mainstream historians until the 1960s. So two decades after
"Black Reconstruction", JFK was still echoing the racist view.
The view of Reconstruction by mainstream historians began to depart in the 1960s from the earlier dominant racism. But there's still a lot more work to be done with respect to the history of what happened to the black people since the Civil War. For example, the mass incarceration of the present was preceded by the widespread use throughout the South of industrial and agricultural slavery in the guise of punishment for crimes, a vicious system that was used for decades. It is recounted in the book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, that appeared in 2008.
Black people, mainly but not exclusively men, were arrested for minor or non-existent offenses, and leased to industrial companies or large farms, who could treat them however they chose. To accomplish this, many new offenses were put into the law, and applied almost exclusively to black people. And if a convict laborer died, the bosses didn't care, since the company could just lease another one. This continued on a large scale right up to World War II.
Below are excerpts from the introduction to the book. The author begins by showing the conditions that a worker faced when leased to a company such as the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, where he could find himself
"chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily 'task' was to remove eight tons of coal form the mine. [He] was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners -- many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian [underground] confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama -- even a child of slave -- could have ever imagined."
Blackmon located a burial field which contained the remains of a number of these laborers, who had been assigned to a nearby labor camp. He wrote that:
"The camp had supplied tens of thousands of men over five decades to a succession of prison mines ultimately purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. Hundreds of them had not survived. Nearly all were black men arrested and then 'leased' by state and county governments to U.S. Steel or the companies it had acquired.
"Here and in scores of other similarly crude graveyards, the final chapter of American slavery had been buried. It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery -- a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion."
The Southern racists pretended that they were fighting black crime waves, and mainstream historians accepted this myth for a long time. Blackmon comments that the historians
"overlooked many of the most significant dimensions of the new forced labor, including the centrality of its role in the web of restrictions put in place to suppress black citizenship, its concomitant relationship to debt peonage and the worst forms of sharecropping, and an exponentially larger number of African Americans compelled into servitude through the most informed -- and tainted -- courts. The laws passed to intimidate black men away form political participation were enforced by sending dissidents into slave mines or forced labor camps. The judges and sheriffs who sold convicts to giant corporate prison mines also leased even larger numbers of African Americans to local farmers, and allowed their neighbors and political supporters to acquire still more black laborers directly from their courtrooms."
Blackmon's research indicates that
"The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks -- changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity -- or loud talk -- with white women. Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South -- operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations."
He also said that it became apparent to him
"how inextricably this quasi-slavery of the twentieth century was rooted in the nascent industrial slavery [i.e. in industry as distinct from the agricultural plantations] that had begun to flourish in the last years before the Civil War. The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s. The South's highly evolved system and customs of leasing slaves from one farm or factory to the next, bartering for the cost of slaves, and wholesaling and retailing of slaves regenerated itself around convict leasing in the 1870s and 1880s. The brutal forms of physical punishment employed against 'prisoners' in the 1910 were the same as those used against 'slaves' in 1840."
Blackmon writes that this form of slavery receded with World War II. However racism continues, mass incarceration is now at a level unprecedented in the past, and police murders of unarmed black people continue day after day. <>
(Based on a report by a member of Seattle Workers' Voice)
On June 13th, the police killed Asian-American high school student Tommy Le on the night before his graduation, claiming that he was brandishing a sharp object, which turned out to be a pen. This was in the city of Burien, about 11 miles south of Seattle. Then, the next week, we not only saw the acquittals of the police murderers of Philando Castile of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and Sylville Smith of Milwaukee, but on June 18th we saw the unjust police killing in Seattle of Charleena Lyles, a black thirty-year-old mother of four who had called the police to investigate a burglary. Lots and lots of Charleena's family members and neighbors were deeply angered by this, as were people everywhere. They almost immediately united with Andre Taylor (whose brother Che was murdered by the Seattle Police Department in February last year) and others to begin to build a movement for justice. They held a vigil already on Monday June 19th for Charleena at which many family members and neighbors spoke through angry tears, and two mayoral candidates gave interviews to the press. On Tuesday June 20th they held another vigil and rally which was attended by many hundreds of people and ended in a long street march. And on Thursday June 22nd many of them attended and spoke at a previously-organized Black Lives Matter demonstration of some 600 people downtown.
The main chants from these events include: "Say her name! Charleena Lyles!", "Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!" and "No justice, no peace! No racist police!"
Then on June 27th the Seattle City Council held a public hearing on the police killing of Charleena Lyles. It was packed and overflowing with some 700 people. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on the mood of the meeting as follows:
"Don Alexander, a cousin of Lyles, galvanized the crowd with a call to action.
"'Some of you folks just don't believe in walking,' he said, raising
his walking cane with a plea for protest. 'Why would they listen to you
when you don't do anything to make them listen? ... The police are
doing their job. Why don't you do yours?' "
Indeed, he went on take about the need to make your hands into a fist in order to build a movement with the power to force the City Council to do something.
In this movement there are demands that the officers who killed
Charleena be fired, arrested, and charged with a homicide crime. There
are demands for reforms of local police policies and for more public
oversight and direction of everything the department does. There is a
demand for revision of a state law which makes it almost impossible to
convict a cop of murder because the prosecutor has to prove there was
"malice" according to its legal definition. And there are demands
raised against the way the state treats people who have come down with
a mental illness, like Charleena had. Moreover, and most importantly,
numerous of the speakers and people from among the broader masses are
emphasizing that nothing is going to be won without building the
movement in the streets. <>
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