The death of James Jeffords has brought renewed focus to the transformations that have occurred during the span of his long political career. Jeffords, who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2006 at the age of 72, witnessed those transformations at first hand. At the same time, events in Ferguson, Missouri, are showing us all that has stayed the same.
The most consequential change of the past half century was the end of apartheid in America. The civil rights movement has yielded many gains for Americans, black and white. But the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans set off a reaction among many people that is still with us, a reaction that affected Jeffords’ career in important ways.
Richard Nixon understood what was happening when he ran for president in 1968. He adopted the notorious Southern strategy, directing his message to those who opposed the end of segregation and appealing to their fear that equality for black Americans was a threat to order and, ultimately, to white privilege. What followed was the Dixiefication of the Republican Party.
For the century after the Civil War, the South had been a bastion of the Democratic Party. It was the Democrats, after all, who had resisted Lincoln and the Republicans, defending the rights of the slave states against what they saw as Northern aggression. At the time of the civil rights movement, the segregationists of the South were Democrats, who felt betrayed by President Lyndon Johnson and who responded to the Republicans’ anti-civil rights agenda.
Barry Goldwater, remember, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ronald Reagan launched his victorious presidential bid in the Mississippi town where civil rights workers had been murdered.
It is important to recognize the depth of the fear underpinning American racism. Historians have noted that the importation of slaves from Africa to the Americas was the largest forced migration in human history — somewhere between 11 million and 15 million through the centuries. It was an enterprise built on the brutalization and control of an entire people.
And yet, in many parts of the South, blacks, who did most of the work, outnumbered whites. No wonder whites lived in fear of black self-assertion. To justify the crime upon which their society was based, whites constructed an elaborate mythology about the unworthiness, undependability and danger of blacks.
Whites maintained a program of social control that persisted long after the end of slavery. Blacks could be lynched with no consequences for the murderers. Blacks could be arrested on a pretext — loitering, vagrancy — and sentenced to hard labor for the benefit of plantations, factories and mines. They were held in virtual bondage as sharecroppers. No wonder when they had the chance, they undertook the largest migration in American history — from the South to the North and West.
Social control has continued by means of police brutality, a discriminatory justice system, mass incarceration and economic exploitation, all of which are obvious to blacks and less than obvious to whites. The murder of young black men by police is a sign of the different lenses through which police often see black and white citizens.
There have always been political forces willing to defend practices that are oppressive to African-Americans, seeing pleas for fairness as a desire for special treatment. Republicans’ recent efforts to suppress voting by blacks represent a chapter taken from the history of the Jim Crow South, an astonishingly blatant example of the racism that has always underpinned the so-called Southern strategy.
Toward the end of his career, Jim Jeffords no longer recognized his party. As the Republican Party became the party of Dixie, it had less and less room for the moderate Republicans of the Northeast and elsewhere who had cherished the party’s legacy as the party of equality. So Jeffords left the party in 2001. Since then, the polarization of the nation has continued apace, reflected in the differing responses to the abuses of Ferguson. Jeffords understood the need to put oneself in the shoes of others. That is what must happen in Ferguson and throughout the nation.
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