OK, I had to take a couple of days. You know what I felt like happened? Let me give you a couple of historical examples.
After Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, when eyes turned to Virginia, when the lies about enslaved blacks' contentment and the relative benignity and beneficiality of slavery were so thoroughly challenged, the white South basically shut down any discussions on the peculiar institution.* Challenges and criticisms wouldn't be met with defenses, justifications, or skewed logic (not that they'd always been prior to 1831). Instead, they were met with aggression, anger, and threats toward suspected abolitionists (and even the more moderate anti-slavery folk) and further repression of blacks. Pro-slavery forces in Congress even managed to effect gag rules, shutting down the discussion in Congress for a decade.
The lesson--there are very real, very negative results if some white Southerners perceive attacks on the racial status quo, particularly in the form of liberatory actions on the part of blacks and "interference" from "outsiders."**
I've mentioned before that in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana stood in the Senate and painted a picture of the South, and Louisiana in particular, as a peaceful region, with few "racial" disturbances, and a status quo accepted by blacks and whites alike. If blacks were largely disfranchised,*** then it was the result of insufficient motivation on their parts and nothing systematic or institutional. But, Ellender warned, if the Justice Department kept interfering, if civil rights organizations kept pushing, then no one could hold white southerners responsible for what they might do about the attack on their states' rights and the favoritism shown towards blacks.
And in the aftermath of new civil rights acts and the establishment of the Civil Rights Commission (CRC), white Southerners, again, shut down. They restricted access to social services to the poorest blacks. In Louisiana, they ruthlessly purged blacks from the voter rolls. They expanded the use of literacy tests and "good character" requirements. They refused to cooperate with the CRC, refused to even acknowledge its legitimacy.
The lesson--there are very real, very negative results if some white Southerners perceive attacks on the racial status quo, particularly in the form of liberatory actions on the part of blacks and "interference" from "outsiders."
So when it came to Mychal Bell's trial, I just knew. When blacks in Jena rallied around their children, when international attention came to the situation, I knew. When I read the nasty comments from Louisianans on different blogs about how "Jena isn't that bad" and "There's racism everywhere" and "If six white boys had done this...", I knew. And Lord, when they
chose that all white jury, I knew, as a historian, as a black southerner, that the jury was not going to miss the chance to reinforce "the lesson."
At the expense of a child's life.
*The rebellion was not the sole reason, of course, but I believe it played a large role in the way the South handled the issues surrounding slavery over the next three decades.
**Outsiders can be within the community, too, e.g. white southerners who challenged the status quo in the South.
***I mention this because I am hearing the same defenses of the all-white jury in Jena.
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