A room full of Tampa Bay residents gathered to discuss racial justice Tuesday night. The meeting was held by the Tampa chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Photo courtesy of SURJ-Tampa.
TAMPA—Last night I walked into a community room in back of a Lutheran Church for the first meeting of the Tampa Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice.1
As with any completely new experience, there was some apprehension walking through that door. I had brought a friend, but I am leery of the wholly unknown.
Yet it was fundamentally important to me to be there. To “show up,” as the name of the organization suggests.
The agenda showed that we would be breaking out into groups, which ratcheted the apprehension. In some odd personality quirk, I welcome the opportunity to talk to strangers when in “work mode” but tend to eschew it in “personal mode.”
In my first group of four people, I and three strangers were asked to discuss our responses to the following question, an abbreviated version of which I wrote down:
“What incident turned you on to racial justice work?”
– An abbreviated version of our first question, posed by the discussion leader for the night, Russell Meyer
All anxieties quickly dissipated, and I learned a lot and very much enjoyed getting to meet new people with different perspectives.
Racism is a difficult subject. Yes, there were some tense moments. But we cannot grow in comfort. I am more than willing to endure mild social awkwardness if I can help in some small way to make the world a better place.
I left the meeting engaged and ready to work.
Sens. Warren, McConnell, and Coretta Scott King
Then I came home and began reading social media.
At the very same time that we were discussing racial justice, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had been silenced from the Senate debate on the confirmation of Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General, who until his confirmation is himself a member of the Senate (R-AL).
Coretta Scott King’s March 19, 1986, cover letter, which accompanied a 9-page statement opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship in 1986. Click the thumbnail or here for the entire PDF.
Warren was silenced at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) because she was trying to read King’s 1986 letter to the Senate regarding Sessions’ then nomination to a federal judgeship, which was rejected by the Senate.
Despite the fact that the letter was written well before Sessions became a senator, McConnell invoked Senate Rule 19, that says that senators cannot offer words that would suggest “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Warren forced a vote, and 49 Republicans voted to silence her. And social media erupted.
No matter the motives, the facts of the incident were that a southern white man silenced a woman for trying to read the words of an African-American woman that suggested another southern white man had engaged in racist practices while an employee of the U.S. government. Pundits call this “bad optics.”
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
– Coretta Scott King March 19, 1986, cover letter to then-Senator Strom Thurmond(R-SC) opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions as a federal district court judge. (Emphasis original). Attached to the cover letter was a nine-page statement, the PDF of which is available by clicking here.
I will say simply that the events of the U.S. Senate yesterday made me more energized and more prepared to work.
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
For me, the answer to the first breakout group question took the form of a mathematical equation—or a chemical formula.
There was a seed crystal and an activating agent.
The seed crystal, not surprisingly, is best described by my favorite author, Henry David Thoreau, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
For racial justice to me, that book was Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic A People’s History of the United States, as revised in 2009. An Ivy-League educated historian, Zinn attempted to tell the parts of our history omitted from almost every official account.
It was chapters two and three, “Drawing the Color Line, and “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition,” respectively,” that moved me the most.
Slavery’s Origin in North American Colonies
To be clear in advance, it was neither the prevalence of slavery nor its brutality that most moved me—as both were well known and abhorrent to me before the book. Instead, I was deeply affected by the systematicity of the efforts and more pointedly, the purposeful efforts by white landowners to inject racial hatred into people. Wealthy white people worked resolutely to create racial hatred and hasten its festering.
First, however, we must begin at the beginning.
According to many accounts2, the first involuntary kidnapped Africans arrived in what would become the United States in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Zinn quotes an African-American writer, J. Saunders Redding, describing the event.
“Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery. Whether she was trader, privateer, or man-of-war no one knows. Through her bulwarks black-mouthed cannon yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.”
Jamestown represented an ambitious project for investors in The Virginia Company of London. In April 1607, three ships of optimistic colonists settled and named Jamestown. Nine hundred settlers arrived within three years.2 By 1610, all but sixty had died of famine. The period came to be the known by the words of one settler as “the starving time.”
Zinn points out that the English settlers simply did not possess that agricultural acumen—or the work ethic—to feed themselves and grow tobacco for export.
Although they had superior weaponry to Native Americans, they were vastly outnumbered by a cunning people on their native soil, so their enslavement was an impossibility.
Zinn quotes Edmund Morgan in his book, American Slavery, American Freedom:
“If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians’. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages. It was evident in your firearms, your clothing, your housing, your government, your religion. The Indians were supposed to be overcome with admiration and to join you in extracting riches from the country. But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did. They even furnished you with the food that you somehow did not get around to growing enough of yourselves. To be thus condescended to by heathen savages was intolerable. And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much. If it came to that, the whole enterprise of Virginia would be over. So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar treatment to any of your own people who succumbed to the savage way of life. But you still did not grow much corn …”
– Zinn excerpted much of the quote. Above is the entirety taken from page 90 of the 2003 paperback edition.
Driven to the point of cannibalism and starvation, the people of Jamestown desperately needed labor.
A Slave by Any Other Name
When that first Dutch ship arrived in 1619, it is important to note two things. Firstly, indentured white servants already had been imported to Jamestown, but in far short supply. Those first 20 hostages from African were dubbed “servants” rather than “slaves” despite the fact that the European slave trade was at least 50 years old.
A 17th-Century depiction of Virginia tobacco production prominently featuring slave labor.
Slavery had not yet been legalized in the colonies, so this euphemism of equality between indentured European servants and kidnapped African slaves was of necessity. Despite the terminology, every record from Jamestown documents an unequal treatment—far harsher to the slaves in every case. The white Europeans in power treated them very much differently.
Perhaps the most important point from this section of Zinn’s book is that despite the unequal treatment by the ruling class, there is evidence that this prejudice did not exist between the indentured white servants and the slaves from Africa.
“…where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were ‘remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.’
“Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that ‘in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes’ he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any ‘white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
The inexpensive slave labor proved extremely profitable, and the proliferation of kidnapped slaves exploded in Virginia. By 1700, there were 6,000 slaves in Virginia (one-twelfth of the population), according to Zinn, and by 1763, half the population were slaves, 170,000.
An Inhumane, Brutal Practice at All Times
The kidnapping, transportation, and sale of Africans as slaves cannot be described as anything other than abhorrent and evil. Yet it was the system of treatment designed to control such a large, poorly treated slave population once arrived where evil took on a new dimension.
“Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736:
“ ‘We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war… and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
Indeed there were hundreds of such revolts, despite barbarous physical and psychological torture aimed at submission. Kidnapped from their native land, transported in inhuman conditions, forced into brutal labor, and typically torn from their families once in America, these human beings understandably yearned to be free.
To the wealthy landowners, these revolts and rebellions had a chilling and threatening correlate: indentured white servants and other poor white citizens often joined in the rebellions.
“Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation. As Edmund Morgan sees it:
“ ‘There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. In Bacon’s Rebellion, one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty negroes and twenty English servants.’
“As Morgan says, masters, ‘initially at least, perceived slaves in much the same way they had always perceived servants… shiftless, irresponsible, unfaithful, ungrateful, dishonest…’ And ‘if freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
The Most Unforgivable among Unforgivable Sins
Wealthy landowners—vastly outnumbered and fearing a common uprising between slaves and indentured whites—set about a diabolical plot to institutionalize racism so that they two oppressed groups would be less likely to see one another as the allies they were.
To put that another way, many of the racial issues still hurting lives in 2017 were purposefully and deliberately institutionalized by wealthy white landowners in the 1700’s.
They did this on purpose.
And not just informally. The Virginia Assembly wrote white supremacy into the law.
“Virginia’s ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.
“Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests.”
– Zinn, Chapter 2, quoting Morgan
Employing the human motive of greed, the ruling class drove an inexpensive rift between two exploited peoples. Racism in America did not come about as the natural course of events. It was carefully orchestrated as history first created the need for slave labor (if white landowners were to prosper) and then to alienate the slaves from white servants (if which landowners were to live).
This historical web of events led to a society that still struggles mightily with racism, both overt and subtle.
We Got Here; We Don’t Have to Stay Here
Then Zinn says among the most powerful statements in the book. One that gives me genuine hope and gives me the motivation to stand up for racial justice and continue to stand up.
“The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not ‘natural.’ This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”
– Zinn, Chapter 2 (emphasis added)
People long since dead did this to our society to protect their interests. That means that together we have the power to undo this to advance society’s interests.
Racism is a disease that has long angered me. Finding out that it was a purposeful infection was the seed planted in my mind that told me that I had to do something about it. Anger was not enough.
Participating in the Women’s March on Washington was the activating agent that told me that I have to do something about these injustices now.
1 When I created this blog, I did so very purposefully with the name “Now the Facts.” It will remain true to the name. Some will view this as a “political” post. It is not. Here I report facts with the objectivity of a trained journalist. I have fact-checked this post. The first-person portion of the post diverges from traditional print reporting, but again, these are the facts of my experience rather than my opinion of what one must infer from my experience.
2 See also: Johnson, C., & Smith, P. (1998). Africans in America: America’s journey through slavery. New York: Harcourt Brace. Gates, H. L., Jr. (2011). Life upon these shores: Looking at African American history. New York: Knopf.