Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My History of History


I started college when I was 32, after five years of having historical fiction and nonfiction published in various magazines and books, such as Louis L'Amour Western Magazine and Wild West (where I'd had several pieces published by then, one of them a Spur finalist). I also had six unpublished novel manuscripts -four westerns, a science-fiction novel I'd co-written with a friend, and a 140,000 word historical epic (Bound for the Promise-Land).




I was also broke and had recently lost my steady floor-cleaning job, and was trying to piece together what small accounts I could on my own. I was pretty depressed, to be honest. It seemed that every job in the want ads that I knew I could do and be good at required a college degree -something I had not acquired, having been a Jehovah's Witness when I graduated high school (college was a no-no for them). My long time friend -and co-author of that sci-fi novel (All That We See or Seem) -encouraged me to get that degree, that it was not too late, and so my journey in higher ed began.

I started at Tennessee Tech as an English major. My goal, initially, was to get my Master's and teach composition. Not the best paying job in the world, but it would pay the bills -I had spent most of my life, since age 15, cleaning floors after all. And it seemed like a natural fit. I had been seriously pursuing the life of a writer for ten years, and it was the thing I loved doing the most.

About a month in, they had what was called "Career Day," when freshmen could mill about and visit stations staffed by reps from various departments. I stopped by the history table, manned by Dept. Chair Bill Brinker. I had already realized, from my one history course (Western Civ I, with Will Schrader) that I loved studying about the past as much as I loved writing- by the time my conversation with Dr. Brinker was over, he had convinced me I could double-major, and I was on my way. Later on I set my sights on a bigger challenge, a Ph.D, and decided that History was the field I would pursue it in.

I am really, really surprised that it took me a whole month to figure that out. The more I have looked back on it over the years, the more I have realized I was born to be a historian.

I really think my uncle (by marriage) Edgar had a lot to do with it. My family has deep, deep roots in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, going back over 200 years... and most of that time (okay, all of that time), most of my family were poor. My mom's sister Essie, though, married the guy who owned the garment factory where most of the family worked, and I spent a lot of time with them in my formative years... getting a broader perspective on a lot of things from Edgar, who was very cosmopolitan. He was a Czech Jew who had escaped Europe (barely) during the Holocaust. He spoke five languages, collected artifacts from the Middle East.... and had a lot of history books.



In particular, he had the Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of WWII, in 25 volumes. I devoured those books for years- even though the photos were way too intense for a kid seven or eight years old. I read the whole thing, over and over. I was hooked on history.




(Note: My aunt and uncle are no longer on this mortal coil, but those books are on my shelves at work.)

I remember seeing those ads on TV for the Time-Life Old West collection -the ones pitched by the raspy Jack Palance. ("You'll learn about a gunfighter so mean he once shot a man for snoring too loud!") My uncle didn't have them, but the library did, and I devoured them, too. I also remember checking out a beautiful coffee-table book about Medieval Europe.





I've written often about my childhood love of the western, across all media. But as I think about it now, I realize that a lot of my toys had a historical nature. I used to send off for those playsets that were advertised on the back of comic books (in rotation with Sea Monkeys)... remember those? I played with "army men" like all the other little boys in that era, but the army in question might be 20th century U.S. and it might be something else entirely.... Revolutionary War, Civil War, Classical Rome, Knights vs. Vikings. Or it might be smaller in army scale and larger in physical scale... the same company that made the Johnny West action figures also made 12" well-equipped knights and Vikings.











When I was 9 our fourth-grade teacher read The Hobbit to us, a chapter a day after lunch. I found out that the same author had a new book coming out, and I bought it in paperback... The Silmarillion. It remains my favorite Tolkien book, because it tells the whole history of Middle Earth. For a year or two after that I was devising games, using  playing cards or whatever else I could find, that told the stories of multiple generations of elves and dwarves and humans.



I think the real indicator that I was going to be a historian, though, came when I was 13. I had eagerly been following the storyline of the Dark Phoenix Saga in the pages of Uncanny X-Men (can you imagine what exquisite torture it was to follow this gripping story one chapter at a time over several months, counting the lead-up and denouement?)



I thought wow, this would make a great movie. And then, because I was an extremely odd child, I found myself wondering how they would list the cast... there were so many characters, who would get top billing?

So... I embarked on a research project. I went through a year's worth of X-Men comics, panel by panel... and counted how many times each character appeared, down to the most obscure bit players. (Scott, Jean, and Logan appeared the most, obviously, but I can't remember in what order the other heroes and villains came).

I felt a strange sort of comfort in having gained this data... so I kept going. I did the same thing to every Marvel comic in my collection... and I had practically every issue of everything that had come out in the previous five years (for the average cost of one Marvel comic per week for a month today, four or five bucks each or 16-20 bucks total -you could, each month, buy every single Marvel title and about half the DC ones in 1977 when they were 30 cents apiece.)

It became a ritual, with every new comic I acquired. Which was a lot; starting at age 13 I mowed yards, trimmed hedges, attacked tangled overgrown areas with a slingblade, even cleaned gutters... whatever it took to keep myself in money for my comics and paperback novels. Eventually I had a big notebook full of data... my own archive. I lost interest about halfway through high school, and I don't know whatever became of all that research (and didn't care, once I started swooning after girls full-time)... but I remember a good deal about the results.

For DC I had an incomplete data set, so the results were skewed; I only got about two-thirds of the DC titles, and very rarely picked up one of the Superman books, because I found him extremely boring.

But Marvel... I had about a decade's worth of Marvel comics by the time I lost interest in the panels-per-character project. Spider-man was far and away the top character -his panel count was in the tens of thousands. He was so popular that he had three monthly titles, plus he was constantly guest-starring in other people's books (to raise their sales). The next few were the ones you would expect- Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor. Then Wolverine, because after the X-men took off in the early 80s he was suddenly guest-starring everywhere.



Top villain? Dr. Doom, head and shoulders above the rest. Next were Doctor Octopus, the Red Skull, and Loki. Doom was the Fantastic Four's arch-enemy, but he, too, showed up everywhere- Luke Cage, even the Dazzler, had their go-rounds with him.



Supporting characters? Because there were so many Spider-man titles, and because Spidey's supporting cast were a bigger part of his stories than were the civilian pals of other heroes, Peter Parker's entourage dominated. Especially the cranky Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. In fact, this was the biggest surprise: JJJ wound up being somewhere around #8 overall, ahead of all but the most iconic superheroes (and Aunt May wasn't too far behind).



I'd also had another project going: an encyclopedia of every character, race, and planet to appear in the 9 year run of Marvel's Star Wars comics... on typing paper, with pen-and-ink drawings. I'm not sure what happened to those either, but it's okay- nowadays we have Wookieepedia. That's not a joke. We have Wookieepedia.



Anyway, my tastes changed, as did my the focus of my OCD tendencies. But I kept devouring history books. When I was in the hospital room waiting for my child to be born, when I was 23, I was reading the final volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization.

It is odd, though, when I think back on that side-hobby of my teen years, the panels-per-character thing. Because, basically, that's what I am still doing as a historian... sifting through printed sources, counting things, trying to locate trends and extrapolate from the numbers.

It's very strange.

But so am I.

U.S. Marshals and Nineteenth Century Violence


Head over to the Western Fictioneers boks -HERE -to check out my guest blog. It deals with both the American West (Especially Indian Territory) and the Moonshine Wars of Southern Appalachia. It is also a teaser of sorts, for several big projects I have started work on.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Working: A poem for May Day in the Upper Cumberland


WORKING

Troy D. Smith

Coal dust settles on me like black snow
Choking in the darkness
Sweat and soot making grime
Soaking into the clothes
From the company store.
Lint swirls around me, blowing fans
Only moving the heat around
Shirt factory whistle sharp in my ear
Walking through the fallen buttons
Fallen faces, fallen wages
Chunking rocks in muddy fields
Clearing the way for bright leaf dreams
Scent of tobacco curing in faded barns
Splinters from tobacco sticks
Break on callused hands
Grandkids now grown toil away
Stocking shelves, shining floors
Making change at drive-through windows
Everything has changed
Nothing has changed
Driving down from the mountain
Window open to the chill morning air
Watching the people drive to work
Trudging yet hopeful, finding joys
In simple things, finding strength
In Psalms and prayers and Johnny Cash
As the Caney Fork flows slowly by
(fish are biting somewhere)
As pride in labor, and dignity, and humanity
Still manage to take root
And weather the sun, and reach for the sky
Always reaching, always proud,
Working.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

2017 Spur Award Winner


I was deeply honored to have my novella "Odell's Bones" chosen as the winner of Western Writers of America's Spur Award in the short fiction category. You can see a complete list of winners, past and present, HERE, and I congratulate all the winners and finalists.

I have to tell you straight up, I've never made much money at this writing gig. Once upon a time I hoped I could pay the bills with it, but I wound up relying on a day job for that (a day job I absolutely love, being a history professor, and one that ALSO involves writing and publishing for little if any money.) But if given a choice, the recognition for my work that I have received from the Spur Awards (I won once before, 16 years ago, and was nominated a couple of times before that), the Peacemaker Awards, and a handful of critics and historians of the genre who have spoken well of me -plus the many, many author colleagues who have encouraged me through the years -well, I honestly value that, and appreciate it, and treasure it, far more than any amount of money. Sounds weird, but it's true. I am especially grateful, all the time, for several close friends I made in this business who were my mentors and my boosters who have shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an honor to labor in their shadow, and on the shoulders of the many giants this genre has produced and continues to produce.

The first great American fiction to catch the world's attention, that of James Fenimore Cooper, was frontier fiction. Much of the literature produced on this continent before that -ostensibly nonfiction, but some of it ya have to wonder -also was about the frontier experience, from the captivity narratives of New England to the accounts of people like Daniel Boone. And in a tiny, shimmering, but very real way, I and all my western writer colleagues are a part of that tradition, of that chain. It is humbling. And, at the same time, it is something for all of us to be proud of. This includes a large number of exceptional writers -some of them among the greatest western writers who have ever lived -who have yet to be awarded one of those shiny, jingly Spur plaques, but who should have been many times over. So my hat is off to us all: today's winners, yesterday's, tomorrow's, and the many who were deserving but unjustly (or unluckily) neglected.

That said, I should tell you how to find "Odell's Bones." You can get it on amazon and elsewhere as a 99 cent EBOOK. OR, in paperback only, it is one of six stories in the collection WEST OF SUNDOWN.  Finally, available in either paperback or ebook, it has been added in a revised edition of my (very large) collection THE STEALING MOON, which has 36 stories in all.





Check it out. And then check out those many other fine western writers out there.



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Survivor's Tale

A SURVIVOR’S TALE
By Troy Smith
--
Sitting at the bedside
Of this frail little woman
Who helped raise me
Holding her gossamer hand
As she struggles for breath
Seeing my mother, her sister,
Harrowed in the corner
“Look what I brought,” I say
“A comic book to read
“While I sit by you
“Like when I was little”
My Aunt Essie
Aunt is too small a word
Essie is too big a force
This Southern matriarch
This Belle of the Ball
Living breathing icon
Drafted by Tennessee Williams
Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield
Given flesh and form
This Appalachian shiksa
Who loved a Jewish man
(A Holocaust refugee)
And loves Jewishness itself
Who calls out the names
Of my mother, and me
“I’m right here,” I say
And stroke her hand
Her dementia erases
The recent past
But at least she knows our names
And at least perhaps forgets
That we have not visited enough
As the night wears on
She calls to a new player:
Her long-dead mother
“Help me, mama,”
She says, plaintive,
Arms outstretched
Snatching her hands at the air
Like a little child
Senile people, like infants
Tear at your heart
When they suffer
For they don’t know why
They only know
That it hurts
And they look to you
With tearful eyes
Wanting you to make it stop
But you can’t make it stop
And in this case,
Life’s end not life’s beginning,
You hope it does stop
You hope it doesn’t stop
You pray it will stop
You dread it will stop
Tonight it subsides
And I read in silence
Ten minutes after I finish my book
The doctor comes
And says it will stop soon
And we should say goodbye.
My eyes were already wet
From my reading-
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
A graphic tale of holocaust
And Jewishness
And guilt and love
And endings
“I love you,” I tell her,
“And will see you soon”
And we clear the room
While the doctors work
Through the hours
Until they tell us
She is not out of the woods
But is stable now, breathing still
And for a moment I believe
She will never die
Though she has claimed to be dying
Almost all my life
She outlasts them all
But I know it is only a reprieve
And that the kindness of strangers
Can be relied upon

For only so long.


March 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Universal Truth

UNIVERSAL TRUTH

I have spent my life
Arms outstretched
Looking for truth
“and the world
Shall be better for this”
Artist, author
Poet, historian
Religious seeker
But just when I find myself
Close enough to touch it
It changes
Like water
Like mist
Like dreams
And the Universal Truth
I have striven toward
Is singular and unique
Variations of a tune
From player to player
Particular, peculiar
Not just from person to person
But from moment to moment
Echoes, echoes
Echoes and shadows
Ringing laughter
From Schrodinger’s ghost
Slogging through the fog
Of our private universes
Intersecting only in theory
Perception not reality
Perception is reality
Verities twinkle
Like distant stars
That may have imploded
An eon ago
Nothing is constant
It has always been the same.



Troy D. Smith, 2016

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Question about Race and Politics

The essay below –which wasn’t meant to be an essay –was in response to some specific questions from a (very conservative) student, as well as a youtube video of conservative author Dinesh D’Souza. I answered the questions in writing, rather than in class, because the class was about U.S. history up to 1877, and most of my answer involves post-1877. Spending an hour of class time doing this would eat up time needed to cover the material of that class.

Here are the questions I received:

“It is fascinating to learn about the history of slavery and racism in the United States, especially given the current times. I saw this video circulation on the internet/social media and wanted to get your opinion. Republicans are consistently painted as the racists in the modern day while we have been learning that it was the democrats who passed Black Codes and died to protect slavery. Where should the modern intellectual man and mind stand on party lines in respect to supposed racism in modern 2 party policy? Should the Republicans really be the ones that are seen as non-promoting of minority issues? Or have we all been misled? These are questions that I have after seeing the attached video and reading the latest article from the Washington Post talking about how 45-65% of modern republicans/Trump supporters do not considered racial issues a priority etc. I would love to get your thoughts.”


 

By the way, here is what I think is a balanced article on, and interview with, D’Souza in Vanity Fair, to get some background on him:  Vanity Fair article  

In the event you are not able, or inclined, to watch the video, I’ll give you a brief recap. D’Souza argues that it is unfair for Republican policy to be construed as racist, as Democrats have always been the party of racism; when a historian in the audience asks him about the Southern Strategy of Nixon, D’Souza claims it was not really a factor, that the mass movement of blacks from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party happened in the 1930s under FDR, because they wanted entitlements, and that this had already happened before the Civil Rights Era. He also claimed that it was only the non-racist white Southerners who left the Democrats to become Republicans after the Civil Rights movement.


At this point I should point out that it is a matter of public record, and common knowledge, that I am the faculty adviser of the College Democrats (for six years now), which makes my political affiliation more public than would normally be true for a college instructor. I would also point out that in six years of student evaluations many students have commented on my fair treatment of the two parties in class.

Here is my response:

I am going to try to address the points you raised, and that Dinesh D’Souza asserted in the youtube video you sent me. It took me awhile because historians don’t give one-paragraph answers; we have to build an argument, and we have to look at context. I wound up spending several hours writing this; that’s not a complaint, I feel it is my job to, well, talk about history. But I do hope, in light of the time and effort, you take the time and effort to read it closely and think about it.

First of all, there is apparently no question with D’Souza (and you) that the Republican and Democratic parties “switched places” on a lot of issues (with D’Souza taking the unconventional stance that this happened exclusively in the 1930s, not the 1960s/70s.) So we can start with that shared assumption. This means, of course, that it is extremely misinformed and disingenuous to make statements (which I’ve seen a lot of conservatives doing lately) like “Why do people say Republicans are racists, when Republicans freed the slaves and Democrats supported slavery and the KKK?” 

Because you are talking about the Democrats and Republicans of the 1860s/1870s. We’ll be spending a lot of time in class discussing the births of both those parties (and Federalists, and Whigs), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s put it this way: the Republicans of that time opposed the spread of slavery (while the radical extremes of the party wanted to end slavery, period), while Democrats (North and South) wanted to preserve it. In other words, Republicans wanted extreme social change, and Democrats wanted things to stay the same. Essentially, Republicans were liberal and Democrats were conservative. So if one insisted on bringing slavery and racism into the discussion, it would be much more accurate to say that in the 19th century conservatives supported slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and liberals opposed both (although the terms liberal and conservative as we use them are mostly a result of 1950s politics).

To give a thorough explanation I am going to have to go into things we will be discussing in class, so you’re getting a free preview.

The early Republicans were ardent believers in “Free Soil and Free Labor.” They believed that when Free Labor exists –instead of Slavery –every working man has an equal chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed (this is still a basic part of the Republican Party.) They believed that slavery was bad –not just because it was immoral –but because it was detrimental to small farmers and working men. Wages are driven down when it’s possible to just own your labor force. Thus it would be a catastrophe if new states opened up in the West allowed slavery: instead of small, independent farmers getting a break by being able to claim land and start farms –which is eventually what Lincoln guaranteed with the Homestead Act –rich plantation owners would grab up all the land for new plantations, worked by slaves, and working men and small farmers out West would be screwed. The importance of free labor was actually summed up by Lincoln when he said this:

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

SO, during Reconstruction, which was very radical and very liberal, the Republican Party was in favor of the federal government helping newly freed blacks (AND poor whites) get started in their new lives as farmers, and established the Freedmen’s Bureau. Democrats (conservatives) complained about this process, saying that the Republican-dominated federal government was coddling black people, who were too lazy to go out and make it on their own, giving them free stuff while they lived a life of ease, paid for by the taxes of white workers, who were therefore getting the shaft. As evidenced in this Pennsylvania Democratic campaign ad from 1866:


(The President in question is Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who was very soft on the former Confederate political leaders of the South. Lincoln had chosen a Democrat as running mate to help him get re-elected in 1864.)

But Republicans believed in Free Labor. They believed that, if everyone had a fair shot, anyone could succeed. Therefore, by stepping in and helping freed blacks get a fair shot, Republicans believed that within a few years you would see a lot of successful black entrepeneurs in the South. But that did not happen, for two reasons: groups like the KKK were terrorizing blacks who seemed like they could be successful (and their white Republican, mostly Northern allies), and –number two –these freed slaves had just come out from under centuries of bondage and had no idea how to get started and compete, it would take more than just a few years to undo that.

So as the years went by and blacks in the South weren’t showing the sort of rapid progress Republican leaders had predicted, Republican voters lost patience (and interest) with them, and eventually Reconstruction had little political support among northern Republicans, who turned more of their attention toward business in the mid-1870s. Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes, winner of the closely-contested 1876 election, had campaigned on the promise of ending Reconstruction. This was really the beginning of the shift in the Republican Party, as they were more and more concerned with promoting business interests rather than racial issues.

This resulted in The Gilded Age, the age of the “robber barons,” when vast fortunes were made while workers and farmers felt more and more put-upon. This is why bank robbers like Jesse James or the Dalton Gang were treated as heroes by average Americans in that period –they were sticking it to the man (and why bank robbers, such as Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, would again be glamorized during the Depression.) This would lead to labor actions and eventually the Populist movement of the 1890s, followed by the Progressive Era (1900-1920). During this period the Democratic Party welcomed immigrants and lobbied very hard for their votes, as well as for that of factory workers.

The Progressive Era –absolutely a reaction against the Gilded Age and its excesses –lasted twenty years and the administrations of three presidents: Teddy Roosevelt (Republican), William Howard Taft (Republican), and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat.) All three were Progressives. Progressivism entailed an activist federal government, willing to step in and regulate businesses and particularly opposed to monopolies. Progressivism also was marked by a heavy reliance on “experts”. Teddy was famous for his business-regulating and trust-busting (trust of course = monopoly). Taft followed his example, busting up some big companies, but Teddy felt Taft was too soft on big business so he came back to run against him in 1912 as a third party candidate (he called his new party the Progressive Party.) Wilson was the Democratic candidate. Socialist candidate Eugene Debs got a respectable percentage of the votes, as well. So there were four candidates in the 1912 election: Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and Debs. ALL of them were left of center; of the four, Wilson was probably the closest to conservative (maybe tied with Taft). He won, of course- he most assuredly was not looking for the black vote; a Southerner, he was also the most racist of the four.


Wilson pushed through a lot of Progressive legislation. (He can’t take credit for the 16th Amendment enacting the federal income tax, Teddy proposed it first and Taft endorsed it, but all four 1912 candidates were for it.) However, once the U.S. got involved in WWI, the Wilson administration displayed the worst aspects of Progressivism (government activism- or perhaps it could better be called over-reactivism –and an extreme emphasis of the group over the individual.) The federal government’s mass violations of citizens’ basic civil rights –basically for questioning the government in any way during war-time –was on par with the similar excesses of Lincoln during the Civil War and John Adams in 1798. Conscientious objectors from non-mainstream religions like Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned, as were writers, artists, labor organizers, or anyone who criticized the government or questioned U.S. involvement in the war.

This was exacerbated by the Russian Revolution of 1917, in which radical leftists toppled a major European power and created a new –communist –government. The Department of Justice cracked down on labor activists –and immigrants from Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe- in the first Red Scare (young J. Edgar Hoover, future FBI director, came to national prominence at this time.) Even people who were afraid of communism, though, started to question the government’s campaign of mass arrests without specific charges or evidence.

I think it was a combination of the Wilson administration’s overreaches regarding civil rights and the increasing fear of communism (the ultimate and most extreme expression of the left) that led to the Democrats’ shellacking in 1920. Pro-business –and very conservative –Republicans swept into the White House and Congress, and started undoing the regulations of the Progressive Era, particularly where banks and Wall Street were concerned. (Calvin Coolidge: “The business of America is business.”) The 1920s would be one of the most conservative decades of the 20th century. In fact, fear of communism and the left led to the rise of fascists in Italy, Germany, and Japan (fascism = the ultimate and most extreme expression of the right.) That didn’t happen in the U.S… what did happen was a lax oversight of banking and investment that led to a very big bubble-burst in 1929, aka The Great Depression.

1920 Shellacking of Democrats:


Herbert Hoover did not believe in an activist government. He did not believe in government safety net programs. People who were unemployed and starving felt differently. Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon created a huge stink when he echoed the Gilded Age “social Darwinism” language, saying that Americans needed to stop whining and tighten their belts, and stop being so lazy. Besides, he said, depressions were a good way to weed out lazy and incompetent people. This did not go over well with people who were out of work and homeless through no fault of their own.

And here we have FDR sweeping into office. His Democratic Party was not the same one of Wilson –or even of 1920, when FDR had been the VP candidate. He put together a new coalition of voters, which would be the Democratic base for the next 50 years: rural white Southerners, factory workers, farmers, blacks, immigrants, and intellectuals. So to give D’Souza some credit, this was the beginning of a major shift- but again, it did not include Southern blacks so much, as only 5% of eligible black voters were registered to vote in the South (due to a combination of fear and despair of making a difference). FDR also back-pedaled from racial issues most of the time, out of fear of antagonizing white Southern voters. Also- I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about how MLK and Jackie Robinson were Republicans. Well, they came into public prominence well after the Great Depression, didn’t they?

The real changes, where race is concerned, started after FDR, with Truman. He put together a permanent commission on civil rights, and integrated the U.S. military by executive order (because it would never have passed Congress- but as Commander-in-chief it was within his purview.) Southern Democrats were very upset about this. They got even more upset at the Democratic National Convention in 1948- the same month as that executive order –when northern liberals led by Humbert Humphrey of Minnesota not only endorsed Truman and his actions, they called for several civil rights concerns to be made an official part of the Democratic Platform, which they were (for the very first time ever). Humphrey said it was time for the Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Most of the delegates from the South were outraged and stormed out of the convention. They split off and formed a third party, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, alias the Dixiecrats, and ran Strom Thurmond for president against Truman and the Republican, Dewey.


In the 1950s, non-Southern Democrats and Republicans were generally in favor of civil rights. As demonstrated by MLK and Jackie Robinson, many blacks continued to be Republican. Eisenhower was a lot like FDR in the sense he tried to avoid directly engaging in race issues, but when he had to he came down in favor of blacks (his office sent a letter to the Supreme Court when they were considering Brown v. Board of Education, saying that America having segregation made us look bad to the world and made it hard to have moral standing in criticizing the Russians for anything. And of course, he sent troops in to enforce desegregation.) I say most Republicans- but Republican intellectual William F. Buckley promoted white supremacy in the pages of his magazine National Review (he later recanted these views).

 In 1956 almost the entire Democratic Senate and House of Representatives from the South signed a “Southern Manifesto” protesting desegregation and civil rights. They were joined by the two Republican Senators from Virginia. Only three Southern Senators refused to sign –Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, and Estes Kefauver and Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee. Strom Thurmond, who had returned to the Democratic fold after the collapse of the Dixiecrats, wrote the first draft of this manifesto.

JFK, like FDR and Eisenhower, was at first reluctant to address race issues (a surefire way to anger your base at that time), but after several violent events within the space of a few months (assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evars, dogs sicced on black children in Birmingham, and the church bombing in that same city that killed four little girls) he gave a presidential address on the subject of racism, the first president ever to do so, and this gained him a lot of support among blacks. 

After he was assassinated, LBJ took over and made it his mission to push through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. LBJ had a lot of rough edges, and messed up royally on Vietnam, but he was sincere about fighting racism and was not afraid to be associated with the cause. When the Civil Rights Act passed, he famously said “We (the Democrats) have lost the South for a generation.” He knew, of course, that pro-segregation white Southerners –who had always been Democrats –would be furious that the party had pushed that legislation. Bear in mind, Democrats outside the South were overwhelmingly for it, as were Republicans –except those in the South (there weren’t many) and those in the Southwest, like Barry Goldwater. Southwestern Republicans had a strong libertarian streak, and were opposed to the federal government telling private businesses they could not discriminate. Goldwater and his followers also opposed LBJ’s social net / war on poverty initiatives, especially Medicare, which they called a form of communism (including actor Ronald Reagan, who switched parties to become a Republican around this time and gave a famous speech in which he said if Medicare passes one day we’ll all be communists. Reagan also opposed the Civil Rights Act.)

It was in the midst of all this that what has become known as Freedom Summer happened –summer, 1964. Civil Rights activists from all around the country went to Mississippi and started helping blacks register to vote. The goal was to elect liberal Democrats and oust the establishment racist Democrats. Several volunteers were murdered, as you are no doubt aware. Again, if D’Souza’s claim that black Southerners had turned Democrat in the 1930s were accurate, this would not have been a thing.

In 1968, Alabama governor George Wallace –who had famously stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to personally prevent blacks from entering –ran for president as an Independent. He ran for the democratic nomination in 1964 and 1972. LBJ declined to run for re-election, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated while in the lead for the Democratic nomination, and Hubert Humphrey got it instead. Former VP Richard Nixon got the Republican nod, and won the election and re-election in 1972.

This, of course, is where we talk about the Southern Strategy. Nixon –who presented himself as the “law and order candidate” and representative of the “silent majority” –employed a strategy devised by his advisers to peel away votes from the traditionally Democratic South, taking advantage of the anger white Southerners felt about desegregation, and the Democrats’ role in it. It was a plan to specifically take advantage of racism. This is a real thing, not someone’s theory; the Republican Party itself admitted to it and apologized for it (in 2005.) Note: two months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Senator Strom Thurmond quit the Democratic Party and became a Republican, which he remained until he died in office in 2003 at the age of 100.


Here is where I let the actors speak for themselves. First, Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips in an interview in 1970. Phillips, by the way, is still a prominent conservative commentator.

      “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that...but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.” –Kevin Phillips, 1970

Next, Lee Atwater- campaign adviser to Nixon and later to Reagan and Bush Sr. This is from a 1981 interview that he thought was going to be anonymous, but after he died his identity was revealed.

·         “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” Lee Atwater, 1981

So: in 1964 Republican nominee Goldwater was opposed to the Civil Rights Act. In 1968 and 1972 Nixon appealed to white racism to get elected. Blacks around the country stopped supporting Republicans. Go figure. But it doesn’t stop there.

What Atwater was talking about is called “dog-whistle politics.” You know, as in only the dog can hear the whistle because it is tuned only to his hearing range. You no longer come straight out and say the directly racist thing, because that would be unpopular- instead you use code language that can be defended as innocent but which racists –even if they don’t realize they are racists –will hear and understand. Atwater himself said one of those codes is “cut taxes.” How can that be racist? Because cutting taxes would mean cutting social programs, and Atwater knew that white racists –not just in the South –associated welfare with minorities, being lazy and dishonest and getting fat off the hard work of decent white people.

Remember this?


In 1976 California governor Ronald Reagan ran against incumbent president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Lee Atwater was his campaign adviser. (He lost, of course, but won the nomination when he tried again four years later.)

While Reagan was on the campaign trail in 1976, he told a particular story often at stump speeches. The story is about a complaint he received from a voter –a hardworking man who can only afford to buy hamburger, while the man in front of him in the check-out line was buying steak… with food stamps. Living high off the hog at the expense of the hard-working tax-payer. According to Atwater, in a story like this a racist audience would automatically associate a person on food stamps with a minority, probably a black person. But Reagan didn’t leave it to chance. On his stump speeches in Southern states, he didn’t say “The man in front of him was buying steak.” He said “The young buck in front of him.” You know what a young buck is, don’t you? It is an old-fashioned euphemism for the n-word.

Reagan told another story on that campaign. It was about a woman he had heard about in Chicago, who was getting welfare under several different fake names, and driving a Cadillac. It was later proven that this case never happened, and was made up, but “welfare queens in Cadillacs” became a common expression of frustration for working class white voters. Reagan never said she was black- but this imaginary Cadillac-driving welfare queen of Chicago was a perfect dog-whistle.

These types of dog-whistles are still being used, by the way, they just differ over time. In the 2012 election cycle Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich talked a lot about how many of society’s problems are a result of "inner city" “urban culture” having no sense of personal responsibility or work ethic.

Urban culture.

I wonder who that is?

In fact, Dinesh D’Souza is blowing some dog-whistles in this video. He is espousing this idea that Southern blacks left the Republican Party –not as a result of the Southern Strategy after the 1960s –but in the time of FDR. And why? Because FDR was offering them free stuff, and they’re all about that free stuff at the hardworking taxpayer’s expense. By the way, side point, this is the first time I have ever heard this theory. And I don’t even know where to begin with his claim that it was only the white Southerners who weren’t racist that switched parties to become Republicans. I have to take a moment to point out that D’Souza has sold a lot of books to his conservative audience, but has no credibility among journalists or academics outside that specialized sphere (hardcore neoconservatives) and the last I heard he had been convicted on corruption charges. But I digress.

[My thanks to colleague Jeanne Schmitzer who read this and pointed out that, in order for FDR to get his agenda through the Southern Democrats in Congress, he had to make sure  things like social security did not apply to agricultural workers and domestics, which meant that most Southern blacks didn't even qualify for the "free stuff" D'Souza says motivated them. Those exceptions were removed, I believe, during the Eisenhower administration.] 

The assertion was made that a majority of Republicans in a survey said that race doesn’t matter to them, therefore there is no racism. At the same time, polls show that three-quarters or more of Republicans either conclusively believe that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim despite all evidence to the contrary, or they believe he might be. Because he is an outsider, clearly not one of “us”.

Now let’s take a look at Republican efforts to restrict the black vote. The most talked about way is this photo ID thing, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I am going to cheat, now, and paste a very lengthy reply I recently gave someone on Facebook who asked how on earth photo ID can be construed as racist:


It does sound normal and sensible. And know what? I'd be fine with it if the state governments that made these laws paid for the ID's, and paid to set up convenient stations for people to go and get them... and paid someone to go pick up any shut-ins or elderly people who have no way to go get the ID. But they would never do that. What makes ID racist? The fact that, if I recall the statistics right, in one of these states something like 25% of minority voters don't have a photo ID already, whereas only 5% (or somewhere around that number) of white folks don't; and there are countless horror stories about people being turned away because of insufficient ID to get ID, having to start the process all over, and of people having to travel to distant sites to get the ID, and the stations being open at odd hours, and on and on, with the end result that something like 100,000 registered voters in Wisconsin were unable to vote last election- most of them (but not all) black and other minorities. And even if you get your ID, the process of showing it slows down the line at the polls... and the same state governments that have mandated voter ID have shortened voting hours, making it more likely people will not make it through or give up and go home. Why are they doing this? A recent study showed 35 verifiable incidents of in-person voter fraud over the last decade, out of millions of votes cast. So the problem of fraud is virtually nil, and to stop it they've prevented 100,000 people from voting, just in one state. So why go to all this trouble to prevent something that almost never happens? Well, it is no coincidence that almost all of the states who do this have Republican legislatures. As Eugene Robinson points out in the article you posted, in 2012 there was a GOP politician in Pennsylvania who said publicly "Romney will be able to win this state now, because we have voter ID." And there is the situation in NC. It was proven in court that the Republican legislature authorized a study to see which forms of voting black people are most likely to use -and then, in addition to voter ID, they passed laws specifically targeting THOSE FORMS (shorter voting hours; no same-day registration, no voting on Sunday) but did not restrict the forms (early voting and mail-in ballots, for example) that their study showed black people do NOT use that much. And a NC GOP official accidentally let the cat out of the bag when he was trying to defend the state party from racism charges by saying essentially "we're not racists! Sure we are taking these steps to keep black people from voting, but it's not because we hate black people, it's because black people vote for Democrats and black voter turnout has increased by 50% and we want to make sure we win!" Federal court ruled that all that evidence proves that NC was not REALLY concerned about fraud, they were really trying to make it harder in general for black people to vote -and that is a violation of the Civil Rights Act, whether it's because of bigotry or political expedience does not matter. And in state after state judges have been striking down these voter ID laws because the evidence shows the real motive for them. In fact, my friend and mentor Vernon Burton has testified in some of these cases, as a historian of race in the South, comparing these methods of restricting the black vote with the things they did during Reconstruction (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.), every one of which was eventually banned for being unconstitutional, but every one of which states at the time defended and propounded because they claimed it was necessary to prevent voter fraud.


That was one long paragraph! And it included a lot of approximations, reliant on memory, where statistics are concerned –I’m sure I was off a little here and there, but the points stand.

(checking the links below, I see my memory was correct- if anything, the situation is worse than I said in that FB conversation.)




The assertion was made that Democrats are racist toward black people. Again, when talking about the 19th into the mid-20th century, it does not apply that way. But I’m not letting Democrats off the hook. As I said above, one could argue that it is politics, not racism, that is leading Republican legislatures to try to curtail black voter turnout- because they know 90% or more of them would vote Democratic. But it works both ways. Because the Democratic Party knows only a tiny percentage of blacks vote Republican, they mostly give lip service to the issues that matter to the black community, with no real impetus to tackle those issues. Where are they going to go, after all? They are the same way with labor unions, and Republicans are the same way with Christian evangelicals.

In summation, it was indeed the Civil Rights Act and the Southern Strategy that finally flipped the South from Democrat to Republican –with help from Nixon and Reagan –and was the final straw that made black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats. The assertion that black voters support Democrats because they are lazy and want free stuff is, in itself, racist. And there is no shortage of reasons in this year of 2016 why 90+% of blacks are not voting Republican (heck, we haven’t even mentioned Trump.)



The student to whom I addressed this mini-dissertation found it very compelling and requested that I share it with the whole class, which I did. He then had a follow-up question.


Question: In light of the dog-whistle politics/Southern Strategy etc., how can I support the idea of low taxes and less government spending without being, or appearing, racist?

Answer: There were conservative Republicans promoting low taxes/low spending –and opposing FDR’s New Deal- long before the late 1960s and the Southern Strategy, and they did so with the support of a sizeable percentage of black votes. Eisenhower had 39% of the black vote in 1956. Nixon had 32% of the black vote in 1960. (Then, in ’64, Goldwater –who had opposed the Civil Rights Act –got 6% of the black vote. Nixon only got 12% in ’68, 13% in ’72. Ford got 18% in ’76- and no Republican got above 15% in the 80s and 90s. Since then: 2000, 3%. 2004, 7%. 2008, 1%. 2012, 5%. It looks like this year 1% may be kind of high.)

Eisenhower was especially popular among blacks because of his civil rights record. As I noted before, he wasn’t eager to get involved in race issues –he was from segregated Kansas- but he did not shrink back from them when they came up, and did what he thought was in the best interests of the country (including sending troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, a ruling he had supported.)

So the answer to your question is: you can be financially conservative, and pursue a philosophy of limited government, so long as you don’t try to get support for that philosophy –or just get votes for people who do support it –by demonizing or minimizing the poor, which I believe Paul Ryan for example has done with his “urban culture” comments. And counter-balance that fiscal conservatism with a real concern for issues that affect black and other minority communities. I am no supporter of Rand Paul, but he is the only Republican candidate this season that I saw doing that in any fashion, in his calls for prison reform.

This conversation started with questions about the Republican Party and racism. I do not believe that being Republican makes someone a racist, by any means, nor do I believe that Republicans are generally racists – and I know plenty of white Democrats who are. But. Decades of getting votes for Republican candidates by using dog-whistle appeals TO racists has led the GOP to a dangerous place. How many neo-Nazis, Skinheads, Klansmen, and white nationalists have you heard of endorsing the Democrats lately? But how often do you hear of them endorsing Trump? And during the Obama years, how many low-and-mid level GOP politicians have you heard about getting in trouble for spreading stuff like this:





My point is, Republicans have long courted the votes of white racists –and now they are stuck with a bunch of white racists contaminating their party’s image, message, and philosophy. All the pundits and party establishment figures were astounded this past year when so many big-league conservative candidates lost out to Trump- who, if you look at his policies beyond immigration, sounds a lot more like a Democrat than a classic Republican. How could this happen? A lot of the base that the party has invested in stirring up, it turns out, were responding more to the race dog-whistles (which was planned as a tool for getting votes, not an expression of conservative philosophy) than to the libertarian-leaning fiscal responsibility message that is the actual core of the Republican Party. And now we are seeing the results of that.

Now a note about poverty and the social net. When I was growing up, here is what my situation was: my mom did not graduate from high school- I am in fact the first male in the entire history of my extended family ever to graduate high school, because the men and most women always had to quit to help support the family –so therefore the best she could do was a minimum wage job in a shirt factory. She worked full-time. She worked overtime. She worked like a dog. We had government assistance, because we needed it.

Then Ronald Reagan was elected, and within a year almost all that assistance was gone. I very distinctly remember coming home from school one day in the 7th grade, hungry, and looking in the cupboards. We had a can of Crisco, and that was it, and I knew no one was getting paid until the end of the week. If not for free school lunch, there are many days I would not have eaten at all. Trickle-down economics? I spent the ‘80s getting trickled on.

Then in the ‘90s, when I was just a few years older than you, I was a husband and father, cleaning floors for a living (mostly at Wal-mart). Most of the people I knew at Wal-mart made less money than me. They all worked hard, and most of them were adults with families, not high school students. I worked hard. My wife worked hard. I still needed food stamps and WIC to feed my family for those years. And was darned glad to get that EIC refund in the spring. And most of the people I knew were in the same boat.

When I went to college here at Tech, I was taking 18 or more hours per semester. I worked three 8 hour night shifts buffing floors at Crossville Wal-mart (Fri-Sun) and 4 to 6 hours the other four days, beginning at 4 am, buffing Food Citys in Crossville and Jamestown. That’s 40 to 48 hours per week. My wife worked as a police dispatcher but could not work full-time due to a disability. I still could not have finished college and gotten to grad school without government loans and Pell grants.

It is for these reasons that when I hear people telling stories about seeing someone buying a steak with food stamps, it makes me see red. They don’t know those people. They don’t know that maybe they are feeling depressed and down-trodden, so maybe they are going to over-spend so their family can have steak one day this week even if it means Vienna sausages the other six days.

I hear people say, “well, I grew up poor, and we grew everything we needed.” Newsflash: if you grew up poor on a farm, that means your family had enough money to afford to own land to have a farm. Not everyone has that option.

Do some people game the system? Of course. Is that reprehensible? Of course. Does that describe the majority of people who need those types of assistance? It absolutely does not. And yet, in political rhetoric, all too often people preaching fiscal responsibility lump everyone who is poor into one big category: the people who want free stuff because they are lazy and unprincipled. And I for one take that personally, because they are talking about me, about my mother, about practically everyone I worked with (worked) for years. It is an expression of classism as well as racism: the “lazy, greedy underclass” = blacks, Latinos, and white trash.

So: if you don’t think the government should provide a safety net for the disadvantaged, support conservative candidates who have pro-active plans to benefit the working class and ensure that someone who works 40 hours a week does not need public assistance. That’s what Republicans used to do… for a very long time. Heck, all that stuff I said about the founding of the Republican Party –Free Labor, self-determination, hard work, responsibility –are things which should still be at the heart of the party, and which I respect and agree with. Be like Teddy Roosevelt, who emphasized that everyone is not guaranteed success, but everyone should be guaranteed a fair shot at it. And don’t use those dog-whistles –ultimately they are just a cheap and easy way to get the support of people whose support none of us should want.