Oppression in the South Was Not an Expression of Freedom
Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, by Jefferson Cowie, Basic Books, 512 pages, $35
Jefferson Cowie is a prodigious researcher who often shows sensitivity to historical complexities, and his narrative skills shine. The Vanderbilt historian’s latest book, Freedom’s Dominion, is readable and often provocative. But it superimposes a dubious thesis about Southern history over the facts, arguing that “land dispossession, slavery, power, and oppression do not stand in contrast to freedom—they are expressions of it.”
By Cowie’s account, whites have repeatedly used the doctrine of states’ rights to justify their “freedom to dominate” others. The Southern worldview, he argues, was a doctrine of “racialized radical anti-statism,” which later spread to the North and eventually became normalized in the modern Republican Party.
Central to the book’s narrative is Barbour County, Alabama, and especially its largest community, Eufaula—a place Cowie regards as a microcosm of the white South, and to some extent white America. Whites in both Eufaula and the surrounding county first asserted their “freedom to dominate” by negating treaty guarantees and occupying Creek tribal lands for themselves. In justifying their theft, the culprits, in collusion with Alabama’s leading politicos, cited the sanctity of local control; Cowie calls this a “frenzy of racialized anti-statism.”
In Cowie’s narrative, another alleged freedom—the “freedom to enslave”—animated Barbour County’s campaigns to scuttle both Reconstruction and plans for more equitable land ownership. Once whites had consolidated their power through fraud and violence, they meticulously protected their version of “freedom” through such measures as Jim Crow laws, the convict leasing system, and lynching (“a uniquely sinister form of liberty: the freedom to take a life with impunity”). With the demise of Reconstruction, “freedom proved to be zero-sum: any increase in Black freedom meant a decrease in white freedom,” Cowie writes. “To speak of emancipation today without historicizing and understanding efforts by whites to recapture their freedom to dominate, without seeing how emancipation of African Americans was made into the oppression of whites, is to fail to understand a central problem of American history.”
Throughout the long post-Reconstruction period of “repose on questions of intervention in the South,” whites had little to fear from the federal government. The New Deal failed to challenge, and in some ways reinforced, oppression of African Americans. Cowie argues that President Franklin Roosevelt had to depend on powerful Southern politicians to push through his program, and that they had sufficient clout to blunt anti-lynching bills and other threats to white supremacy.
Post–World War II movements weaved together “racial conservatism and economic conservatism,” which would become “linked to the point of being a single laissez-faire, freedom-loving ideology known simply as conservatism,” Cowie says. “Federal intervention of any kind—whether on lynching, segregation, voting or the regulation of the labor market—constituted a threat upon the sovereignty of a free people.”
The pivotal player in this part of Cowie’s story was Barbour County’s own George C. Wallace, who as governor achieved fame for his invocations of “freedom” and states’ rights, including his infamous 1963 stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In his subsequent presidential campaigns, Cowie writes, Wallace pursued a “Northern strategy” that carried his “racialized anti-statism” to “the blue-collar ethnics” and “the West.” Many of these Wallace voters soon joined “the traditional but right-moving Republican Party,” creating “a political juggernaut.”
Freedom’s Dominion closes with a forceful plea for a new federal mission to “defend the civil and political rights on the local level for all people—cries of freedom to the contrary be damned.”
A major weakness of Cowie’s thesis is its fatal dependence on highly subjective wordplay about the meaning of freedom. Despite some qualifications to the contrary, his book rests on the premise that white rhetoric in some sense corresponded to a coherent and consistent belief system—that lynching, disenfranchisement, genocide, and Jim Crow represented a genuine, albeit twisted, variant of freedom that went beyond mere “ideological window dressing.”
But even if most white Southerners genuinely believed they were champions of “freedom,” that doesn’t make it true, any more than it would be truthful to conclude that Stalinists were legitimately advancing their purported principles of “democracy” and “justice” when they defended the purge trials of the 1930s. Historians have an obligation to question stated assumptions, including those advanced by self-interested whites in Barbour County.
Cowie’s own reporting of salient facts undermines the idea that all that Southern verbiage aligned with a genuine, or remotely coherent, pro-freedom agenda, even one that reserves freedom to members of one race. That pretense was almost routinely cast aside when it conflicted with convenience. As Cowie notes, for example, the whites who dispossessed Creek lands quickly dropped the idea of local control once their actions provoked a war that threatened their very survival: “This time, the states’rights, freedom-loving intruders turned desperately to the federal government to protect them from the problem that they themselves had created.”
A more recent example came in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned racial segregation in public schools. To evade school integration, Eufaula’s city fathers used the federal Housing Act of 1949, a signature accomplishment of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, to obliterate an entire black neighborhood through eminent domain. “In the city’s fight against the most important federal intervention in U.S. civil rights history,” Cowie points out, “it armed itself with another wing of federal power.”
While Cowie acknowledges the often negative consequences of New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives for African Americans, such as the use of slum-clearance programs to destroy black neighborhoods, he shows an unfortunate tendency to make excuses for the liberals “who wanted to improve the lives of the poor.” They kept falling victim to “political restrictions,” or were saddled with a “muddled mission,” or were given insufficient “tools and resources for getting the job done.” If the subsequent history of these programs is an indicator, Cowie would do better to ask whether these failures were endemic to the “mission” itself.
Similarly, Cowie is all too willing to give Roosevelt, whom he credits with reading “the politics with horrible clarity,” the benefit of the doubt for failing to press anti-lynching legislation. When weighing the political calculus, Cowie concludes, the president had “too much at stake—social security, collective bargaining, fair labor standards, housing, the Works Progress Administration, rural electrification, banking reform, and a host of other new government programs—to get behind race relations with any vigor.”
Such statements rationalize inaction by a president who, when he wanted something, had a legendary knack for getting it. From 1937 to 1939, lopsided congressional majorities gave Roosevelt more than sufficient political opportunity to both protect the New Deal and push a proposed anti-lynching bill—if an anti-lynching bill was truly a priority. But he never publicly came out in support. In 1940, his influential, conservative, and Southern vice president, John Nance Garner, privately endorsed such a bill. Roosevelt continued to do nothing.
Cowie also wrongly implies that the states’ rights doctrine was unique to the South. He fails to acknowledge, for example, the vigorous assertion of that principle by Northern states in the 1850s through personal liberty laws meant to undermine the Fugitive Slave Act. It is telling that the term states’ rights was almost entirely absent from Southern declarations for secession, which more often centered on a very different, and sometimes dynamically opposed, “compact theory”: The secessionists complained that the federal government had failed to sufficiently enforce the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause. Other revealing indicators of Confederate insincerity and opportunism include the knee-jerk opposition to secessionist movements in West Virginia and in Jones County, Mississippi. Much later, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus showed his contempt for localism by overriding Little Rock’s decision to integrate its schools.
Cowie knows how to tell a good story. And sometimes he hits the mark; his first chapters, dealing with the expulsion of the Creek, are especially well done. But his book grows weaker as its broader thesis about the meaning and application of freedom becomes ever more forced and untenable.
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