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From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

STOPPING THE CONFEDERATE CHARGE

By Paul Rogat Loeb

Could Maine once again help save the United States from the Confederates, just as it did at Gettysburg? On the battle’s pivotal second day, Confederate troops from Alabama charged up Little Round Top. They would have captured its heights and dominated the field with artillery, were it not for the 20th Maine regiment, 350 men commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Outnumbered 10 to one and running low on ammunition, Chamberlain’s troops stood firm. Five times the Alabamians drove them from their positions. Each time the men from Maine fought their way back; then, when it appeared they were surrounded, they charged down the hill, sent the Confederates fleeing in retreat, and in the process won the battle and possibly the war. Now the time has come for citizens to urge moderate Republican Senators, like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to take their own courageous stand, and break the charge of the new Confederates—the current Republican party.

 

Trent Lott is gone as majority leader, but his past support and present nostalgia for segregation and Big House politics is no aberration, either in his life or in the “party of Lincoln” he’s helped lead. It’s a core Republican theme, and has been for 30 years, ever since Nixon’s “southern strategy.” As we know, Lott fought against desegregating his fraternity, opposed a Martin Luther King holiday while proclaiming, in a speech to the Biloxi, MS, Sons of Confederate Veterans 'The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform,' and spoke as a repeated honored guest to the heirs of the White Citizen’s Council, the Council of Conservative Citizens.  But that’s hardly worse than John Ashcroft telling the avowedly pro-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, “Traditionalists must do more. I’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.” Twice Ashcroft vetoed bills that sought to give residents of the heavily black city of St. Louis the same access to voter registration as the mostly white suburban voters. Dick Cheney voted against civil rights laws and opposed Nelson Mandela release from his South African prison. Think of the Willie Horton ads that helped elect Bush Senior, the “black hands, white hands” ad that helped Jesse Helms keep his North Carolina Senate seat, Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 campaign in Neshoba, Mississippi, (where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Cheney were murdered), or George W. Bush making it a point to speak at the segregated Bob Jones University. Think of the recent defeat of Georgia governor Roy Barnes (and in a ripple effect Senator Max Cleland) and South Carolina’s Jim Hodges in part because they opposed prominently flying the Confederate Battle Flag over their respective state capitols.  Look at the electoral map, and ask where the Republicans would be without white southern backlash.

 

Republicans didn’t always carry the Confederate banner. As late as 1932, Franklin Roosevelt got just 23 percent of the African American vote, and for many years after that, the Dixiecrats who Lott so praised held the Democratic party hostage on race matters. This began to change as the Great Migration brought several million blacks to northern and western cities. Under pressure from African American labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. And his fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights bill. Although Johnson acknowledged that pushing the bill might lose the Democrats the south for a generation, the bill would never have passed without strong support from moderate Midwestern and New England Republicans, like Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen.

 

But after Alabama Governor George Wallace won five states in 1968, Richard Nixon developed his “southern strategy,” targeting the Wallace base through what he called “positive polarization.” Nixon highlighted his opposition to racially charged issues like busing and affirmative action, made a symbol of lazy and undeserving black welfare mothers, challenged the permissiveness of the Warren Court (while nominating ex-segregationist Harold Carswell to an open seat), and made “law and order” a code word for resistance to black demands.  Republicans have been running racially loaded campaigns ever since. The ascension to power of men like Lott, Ashcroft, and Cheney marked a major advance for regressive racial policies. Although this administration talks of compassion and highlights a handful of individual African Americans, they’ve continued to promote policies that damage the poorest and most desperate minority communities, like cutting resources for low-income housing, health care, child care, literacy programs, energy assistance, and the Boys and Girls Clubs programs in public housing projects. They’ve passed election-reform rules that will make it harder for poor and minority voters to vote, like requiring additional identification. This, together with the corresponding tax cuts they’ve given to their wealthy cronies, suggest that plantation politics is alive and well in the White House today.

 

The current Republicans have one more Confederate tie--one that handed them the White House. A century ago, in the process of restricting black voting and establishing racial segregation, the Confederate states barred ex-felons from voting.  These laws remain in force throughout the Deep South, and in Florida alone prohibited 650,000 people from registering, including one in three African-American men. Tens of thousands more got letters purging them from the rolls for convictions that never applied under Florida law—or never existed to begin with. The letters were sent by a data-collection firm with strong Republican ties, a firm whose staffers acknowledged that their efforts would disproportionately target low-income Democrats. No other advanced industrial democracy bars former prisoners for life, and some, like Germany, actively encourage incarcerated inmates to vote. But for the Bush administration, the disproportionate racial impact is fine.

 

This brings us back to Maine, or any other state where Republican Senators claim to call themselves moderates. With heavy black turnout and modest white support helping Mary Landreau eke out her Louisiana victory, the Republican Senate margin is down to a single vote. Maine’s Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have already condemned Lott’s words. But even though Lott’s stepped down from his position as majority leader, by remaining Republicans, they allow the politics he represents to continue to hold sway. They let the neo-Confederates stay in charge--and with enough regressive court appointments, potentially consolidate power for decades.  If they followed the path of James Jeffords, perhaps joined by one of the few other remaining Republican moderates, like Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, or Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, the legacy of race-baiting could be stopped. It would take ample courage for any of these Senators to do this, but it took extraordinary courage to charge down the hill at Little Round Top. And taking a political risk isn’t the same as risking your life. Given the current administration’s propensity to impose their Big House style of politics on the entire globe and to pillage an already threatened environment, I’d suggest the stakes may be nearly as high as at that critical battle 140 years ago. If Maine’s Republican Senators or others step up with enough courage now, they might also change history.

 Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (www.soulofacitizen.org) and three other books on citizen involvement. To subscribe directly to his articles, email list@soulofacitizen.org