Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Consequences of Powerlessness: Whiteness as Class Politics, Part 1

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In honor of that work, I am serializing it at this blog site. Here, I discuss how a combination of "negrophobia" and patronizing envy whites held for the mythically freer black lifestyle led to lynching and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan from 1915-1925.

Words can kill. For decades North Central Texas elites told poorer whites that African Americans represented near beasts, desiring nothing more than to rape Anglo Saxon women and to overthrow their racial superiors. Such myths helped block a potential alliance between blacks and poor and working class whites, but elites also feared civil disorder as unhealthy for business. The elite agenda tangled in its own contradictions. In the first three decades of the twentieth century mobs, agitated by perceived lost racial status, turned lynchings into routine public spectacles statewide.

On March 3, 1910, Dallas authorities arrested a 68-year-old African American man, Allen Brooks, for raping a three-year-old white child. Brooks had been found in a barn with a blood-smeared Mary Ethel Huvens, the missing child of a wealthy white family. Brooks insisted on his innocence, but never got a chance to present his defense. Before his indictment was even read in court, Brooks’ court-appointed attorney George Clifton Edwards said, "a crowd of people . . . pushed . . . towards the Jury room after the Negro." The judge pled with the mob to let the court do its job, but a vigilante screamed, "To [hell] with the courts; they defeat justice."

Pushing past more than 70 officers, the lynchers grabbed Brooks, who weighed a diminutive 110 pounds, tying a noose around his neck and pitching the other end of the rope out the window to the waiting throng below. The outside crowd then yanked Brooks through the window. Brooks fell two floors to the ground, where those gathered "jumped on the negro with their feet and kicked him and stamped him" until his face was "crushed into a pulp." The mob then tied the rope still dangling around Brooks' neck to an automobile, "dragging the poor creature as if he were a sack of potatoes." Hoisting the lifeless Brooks on a telephone pole and leaving it dangling, whites cut swatches of clothing off his body as grisly souvenirs. After Brooks' lynching, a grand jury failed to return a single indictment when law enforcement officials insisted that they had recognized no one in the courtroom swarm.

As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale points out, historians often portray lynching as an atavistic response to the alienation engendered by the modern world. Hale argues that, instead, lynching directly sprang from the market economy. The rise of a small black middle class in the South which had access to consumer products poor whites could only dream of shook the foundations of the Southern social order. Blacks and whites, she writes, may have had to shop at separate stores, and African Americans may have been required to stand at the back of the line, but the marketplace turned whites and blacks into consumers of the same products.

Many Southern merchants were more concerned with the green of a customer's cash than the color of his skin. Jim Crow and lynching spread partly because of these phenomena. Due to other nineteenth and twentieth century innovations like the telegraph, the radio and the national press, lynchings also could become instantaneous national public spectacles reaffirming white supremacy even as market forces called racial hierarchies into question.

As noted in Chapter Three, Dallas elites, alarmed at labor unrest between the 1890s to the 1930s, responded by diluting the electoral strength of white workers. The elite class that would solidify in the 1930s — a clique of real estate magnates, downtown department store owners, bankers, manufacturers, insurance company executives and owners of utilities and media outlets — already began to take shape. They derived further support from elements of the middle class, such as club women who supported social reform as a means of mitigating the harshness of urban life and staving off working class discontent.

This elite/middle class axis attempted to psychologically compensate disenfranchised whites with the ideology of white supremacy. Abstract racial superiority, however, did little to pay the bills. White workers felt their economic standing was sacrificed to the interest of racial and regional aliens — blacks, Mexicans, Northerners and others. This chapter describes the response of "native" whites to their declining status.

The Ku Klux Klan rose in Dallas in the 1920s, presenting itself as defender of white workers' privileges. White supremacy thus became a self-destructive expression of working class discontent. As in the nineteenth century, elites provided the match that lit burning crosses across Texas and then wondered how the fire started. By the 1920s, Dallas completed its transformation from a rural center to a major metropolis peopled largely by a wage-dependent proletariat. In 1920, 158,970 lived in Dallas. Less than one percent of that population worked in agriculture. About 75 percent of the city’s work force age 10 or older were wage earners, those who did not own their own farms or businesses, and were not artisans or independent professionals such as doctors or lawyers.

This broadly-defined working class, which included municipal employees such as policemen, firefighters and teachers, unskilled and semi-skilled laborers, clerks, and servants, proved receptive to the Ku Klux Klan message.
The Klan served not just as a platform for working class fear and resentment against blacks, and to a lesser degree Jews and Catholics, but also as a vehicle for anti-elite sentiment.

Many elites and members of the middle class initially applauded the Klan's opposition to what were seen as symptoms of lower-class rebellion such as socialism. Some Klansmen, however, insisted that elites make good on a perceived promise of white supremacy — that whites of all economic classes would be treated with the respect due racially superior Aryans. Even though many of the powerful, including most Dallas elected officials, had donned the hood, elites increasingly perceived the Klan as a gaggle of uncouth undermen. An expression of white supremacy, the Klan ironically became another excuse for the racialization of poor whites.

In Texas, violence became the most obvious expression of racist discontent. From 1882, the first year such statistics were kept, until 1930, lynch mobs murdered 492 Texans including 143 whites and 349 blacks, the third most lynchings in the nation. Texans ranked only behind the Deep South states of Mississippi and Georgia in this bloody tally. Graphic newspaper accounts of lynchings drove home for blacks and other potential victims the "consequences of powerlessness," as historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall suggests.

Texas lynching rose in the late teens and 1920s partly as a reaction to the women's suffrage campaign, which represented one more challenge to elite rule. Black men achieved at least the legal right to vote in the 1860s, while farmers and working class whites had expressed their political independence with the rise of the Populist, Socialist and trade union movements. Now, the Dallas leadership faced one more unpredictable electorate in the form of enfranchised women.

As Jacquelyn Hall notes, most lynchings did not result from charges of rape but often happened when blacks were too successful or insufficiently obsequious to whites. Southern society, however, was not only racist but also patriarchal. Since slavery, white men had insisted upon access to black women as a prize for waging a successful racial war. The notion of voluntary sex between black men and white women conjured up, in Hall's words, "an image of black over white, of a world turned upside down." Lynching, Hall argues, functioned as a means of both sexual and racial suppression.

The desire of the wealthy for commercial orderliness clashed directly with the need to thwart challenges posed by white women and African Americans to the established white male hierarchy. In the United States House of Representatives, Dallas Congressman Hatton W, Sumners argued that a 1922 lynching resulted from "all this preaching of social equality" between whites and blacks and that violence was a natural response by white men to the black rape of white women. "When the call comes from the woman, crying out from the depth of her outraged chastity, there comes to a man a call that reaches back to the days when he was a savage in a cave . . . The impulse is to kill, to kill as a wild beast would be killed."

In Sumners' formation, "manhood" could be measured by willingness to violently defend not just weak women threatened by black assault, but the principle of white supremacy as well. The fact that white mob violence prevented black men from conversely protecting black women served as a symbolic emasculation of African American males.

White women in Southern rape folklore appeared as weak victims, thus confirming notions of contrasting male strength and vigor. Portraying women as victims of rape symbolically enfeebled the threatening "modern woman" and also denied them a voluntary role in their own sexuality, Hall suggests. The myth of the black rapist provided a rationale for white male supremacy. "The lynch mob in pursuit of the black rapist represented the trade-off implicit in the code of chivalry: for the right of the Southern lady to protection presupposed her obligation to obey," Hall wrote. The new political power of women, including the ratification of the women's suffrage amendment over strenuous objections from Texas males in 1920, terrified men, already emasculated by market forces and inspired repeated lynchings.

The myth of the black racist provided a powerful counter-discourse to early twentieth century feminism, effectively terrifying women across the South and leaving many feeling they needed male protection. Historian Edward Ayers quotes one woman who grew up in the middle Tennessee countryside who in a 1952 interview recalled that women were taught to sew, not cook, "because we were never allowed to enter the kitchen. There was a prohibition because the Negro men on the place that didn't have families were fed in the kitchen." The woman told her interviewer that her peers in the mid-twentieth century couldn't remember and "maybe couldn't understand the horror that had grown up of any contact with a Negro man."

Negrophobic images of the black man as ravishing beast suffused the language of even counter-hegemonic movements such as Texas feminism to the extent that the state's suffragists hitched themselves to the cause of white supremacy. Texans advocating extending the vote to women distributed a leaflet published by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, "Will the Federal Suffrage Amendment Complicate the Race Problem?" Some suffrage critics charged that an amendment granting women voting rights imperiled white supremacy because black women would be given the ballot. Many Texas suffragists countered that the addition of white women to the voter rolls more than made up for that risk. "In all of the fifteen Southern States, except Mississippi and South Carolina, THE WHITE WOMEN GREATLY OUTNUMBER THE NEGRO WOMEN," the Congressional Union leaflet declared. "In nine of these states, THE WHITE WOMEN OUTNUMBER THE TOTAL NEGRO POPULATION. There are in the Southern States 2,017,286 MORE WHITE WOMEN THAN NEGRO MEN AND WOMEN PUT TOGETHER." In effect, women's suffrage would double the white vote.

The leaflet pointed out that black men, ostensibly possessing the vote, had already been denied the ballot due to duplicitous registration requirements. The same could be done to deny black women suffrage, the leaflet implied. With the addition of white women's ballots, female political equality would solidify, not dilute, racial inequality.

Blacks in early twentieth century Texas inspired not just fear, but also a patronizing envy. If their alleged absence of civilization marked African Americans as inferior it also, in the white mind, summoned an image of freedom from what psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in the early twentieth century called civilization's discontents. Western civilization meant a greater degree of physical comfort and convenience, but modern industrial society also brought depersonalization, a sense of lost power, an oppressive sense of economic vulnerability and intense class conflict. Freud may have spoken for many of his contemporaries in Dallas when he suggested that "what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions."

In contrast, whites imagined that their black neighbors, in spite of grinding poverty, lived in infantile, care-free joy. The combination of contempt and envy white Dallas felt towards blacks transcended class boundaries. Even some elites desired escape from the pressure of modern existence into the presumed simplicity of black life. Evelyn Miller Pierce Crowell was the granddaughter of one of the city's wealthiest and most powerful early citizens, William Brown Miller, whose 1850s-era Millermore Mansion represents one of the town's few classic antebellum plantation homes and now serves as the heart of Old City Park. Evelyn Crowell's 1931 novel "Hilltop" depicted slaves as happy savages, guilt-free about their sensuality. Hilltop relates the experiences of Amy, a young girl who befriends Oz, the beau of Lucindy, a family slave.

Oz was "the biggest and blackest negro in Polk County" (Miller’s fictional stand-in for early Dallas County) with the "reputation of being able to pick more cotton than any two darkies . . ." Amy marvels at his muscular chest, which bulges in his "white piqué vest — the one which had once been stained with the blood of a man Oz stabbed . . ." She sits, her eyes round with wonder, as Oz entertains her with B'rer Rabbit stories. Eventually sent to bed, Amy makes Oz promise to yodel the song "Turpentine" as he walks home. "There was something strange and elemental in the wordless song," Crowell writes. "It made the house-bound people of Polk stir restlessly on their pillows. It thrilled and excited Amy, left shivering pleasantly in the darkness after the last echo had died away."

Frightened neither by Oz's exotic blackness nor the memory of his violence (the blood-stained vest), Amy felt only an erotic attraction to his presence. Hilltop suggests that even the wealthy desired a simpler life, closer to nature and free of the demands of the industrial order. Elite women like Crowell chafed at the sexual restrictions placed on them by the ideology of whiteness, which reduced women to the sexual prizes white men earned through their sacrifices in building civilization. Crowell, through her character Amy, shivered at Oz’s animal magnetism and the thought of flaunting the city’s racial and sexual boundaries by living a sensuous life completely outside the cold boundaries of whiteness.

Through black minstrelsy, an entertainment staple for organizations ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Elks and Masons through the 1960s, middle class Anglos also shared a fantasy of shedding their white skins and its assumed burdens. White Victorian culture, while awash in mawkish sentimentality, emphasized severe emotional restraint for men in their personal relationships. As Victorianism crumbled in the industrial conflicts of the early twentieth century, Anglos looked to non-white models for an alternative cultural response.

Music stores like J.P. Crouch in McKinney, Texas, 32 miles north of Dallas, sold music sheets with titles like "Looney Coons," "Coon Time Rag," "Ma Dandy Soldier Coon" and the minstrelsy-flavored "My Georgia Lady Love." Black-faced "coon" songs allowed middle class white Dallasites gathered around a piano an opportunity to fantasize about simpler lives, marked by boiling passions and unrestrained by the discipline of Western civilization. The free-spirited, syncopated rhythms of "Looney Coons" and the "Coon Time Rag" suggested the elation with which Anglo audiences fled from the emotional pressure of whiteness in a hyper-competitive, capitalist city.

The imaginary world created by minstrelsy served as a rebuke to the cold, tightly-controlled industrial order white men had created. The imagined pleasures of blackness thus became the genie white men desperately fought to return to the bottle. As they used lynching to subordinate blacks, working class white men used the club of chivalry to beat unruly women back into their subordinate place. Elite and lower-income men made maleness synonymous with whiteness.

By the 1920s, white men in Dallas flocked to the standard of the Ku Klux Klan in their battle to maintain racial and sexual hegemony. The Klan soon took over the city, making Dallas the epicenter of a national KKK revival. The Klan, however, suffered serious inner conflict. Led largely by middle class professionals locked out of Dallas decision making, the Klan attracted a considerable lower-income following. Klan leaders tried to win elite acceptance by echoing upper class racial and gender ideology. The movement, however, splintered along class lines and could not form a stable ruling bloc.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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