Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.
It was a year ago when an old friend told me about the visits he paid as a child to his grandmother in rural Georgia. Mac Cox is a longtime resident of Ripton, and he said his grandmother had lived on what had been the family plantation in Coweta County southwest of Atlanta.
Our conversation stuck in my mind, and it seemed all the more germane following this year’s election, in which President Trump surprised many people by adding to his 2016 vote total despite the racism and other offensive behavior demonstrated through nearly four years in office.
When Mac was young, his grandmother still lived on the plantation where her own grandmother owned the slaves who had worked the land before the Civil War. The plantation had been in the path of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and when Union troops passed through, they seized the family’s crops and animals. Following the war, the family was destitute, and their former slaves, newly emancipated, stayed on as sharecroppers.
Mac’s grandmother, known to local black families as Miss Jenny Sue, blamed it all on Lincoln, whom she viewed as the devil incarnate. “She hated Lincoln,“ he said. “They all hated Lincoln. They blamed him for the Civil War. ‘I don’t want to hear anything about Abraham Lincoln,’ she used to say.”
White supremacy is the term used to describe the point of view of those who believe that white people should continue to occupy positions of privilege in American society. In its most virulent form, it is expressed through police brutality and vigilante violence. When Mac was a boy traveling from his home in New Mexico to visit his mother’s mother in Coweta County, white supremacy was a given, a way of life, seemingly beyond challenge. He saw it in the Jim Crow laws then in force throughout the South and the habits of dominance and deference that kept black people in a subservient role in Coweta County.
That wasn’t so long ago. Mac grew up in the 1960s and eventually made his way to Vermont, where he had a career as a teacher at Middlebury Union High School (he was home room adviser for one of my sons). But as a boy he spent parts of every other summer with his grandmother on the family farm. After this year’s election, I wanted to hear more about his grandmother, so I called him up and we talked about the starkly different points of view of Coweta County, where many of his cousins still live, and Vermont’s Addison County, where Mac has lived for many years.
He said the suffering and loss caused by the Civil War had created resentments that persist to this day. “We hold these resentments and we’ll hold them forever” — that’s how he described their attitude. “To my sister and I, it was such a strange way of thinking.”
It’s a way of thinking reflected in the election results. President Trump won Coweta County by a roughly two-to-one ratio. Joe Biden won Addison County by roughly the same percentage.
Mac said that in the 1960s he and his sister were both tempted to become active in the civil rights movement, but because they knew the South so well and knew the attitudes of their relatives, they understood “it would have shamed everybody in our family” if they had done so.
Mac’s grandfather, whom he never knew, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan with the express purpose of keeping black people in their place. During the civil rights era, his grandmother was aware of Martin Luther King and others, but the movement was remote from her and her family. They lived in a place where black subjugation was the rule, and civil rights activism was attributed to “communism” and to Eleanor Roosevelt — “because she had championed the black issue,” according to Mac.
Mac described his grandmother and other relatives as “wonderful, caring people” who had grown up in a world shaped by a social order that had lasted through the generations. “The cousins still hold those attitudes,” he said. He has a cousin who is 75 years old. “I can’t even talk to him about it,” he said. “The thing that saved my sister and I is we didn’t grow up down there.”
So how does Addison County talk to Coweta County?
Addison County and all of Vermont can start by recognizing the racism that exists in our own neighborhood. “It is not only a phenomenon of the South,” Mac said. “And that is important for people to understand, especially in Vermont.” He cited the casual racist remarks he has heard as a matter of course — the everyday racism that exists at a level beneath the instances of racial profiling and racist harassment that have been well documented. Without acknowledging the racism in our midst, the progressive politics that prevails in Vermont takes the sheen of hypocrisy.
Still, overt racism at the national level has its own pernicious effect. Trump’s racism couldn’t be plainer to many Vermonters, though Trump supporters, and even Trump, reject the racist label and complain that liberals are too quick to sling accusations of racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry.
Liberals including Joe Biden welcomed the Black Lives Matter movement and the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, seeing them as a means to redress long-ignored racial injustice. It’s clear, however, that black activism has bolstered the feeling of many conservatives that the social order is in peril. In a weird inversion, those who stand up against racial injustice are sometimes accused of racism — by blaming white people for their problems. They are accused of causing trouble.
John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights pioneer, used to talk about getting in “good trouble,” and he was revered for it, but it’s likely the trouble happening these days doesn’t seem so good in Coweta County (or in some precincts of Vermont). If in the days of Mac’s grandmother, people believed black people should stay in their place, Trump has suggested their place does not include “the suburbs.”
Commentary following the election has pointed to the enduring strength of evangelical Christians, who are pushing a sort of Christian nationalism that is anti-democratic and imbued with ideas of white supremacy. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post wrote: “A Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now runs the Public Religion Research Institute, Robert P. Jones, argues that Trump inspired white Christians, ‘not despite but through appeals to white supremacy,’ attracting them not because of economics or morality, ‘but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of white Christian dominance.’”
Liberals have stretched the limits of decorum in describing Donald Trump and his politics. He is a liar and a bully. Everyone knows that. Adjectives used to describe him include vile, cruel, ignorant, fascist and narcissistic. His politics are racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic.
But applying labels is not enough. If white supremacy is the actual goal of the Trumpian right, then democracy is an impediment, not a cherished ideal. For Trump to subvert the election and for his party to practice voter suppression are means to an end, not a crime to be punished. If Abraham Lincoln is a villain, then taking down statues of Robert E. Lee is not likely to win many converts in Coweta County. .
And yet attitudes change, generation by generation. Mac remembers the time when his mother, the daughter of Miss Jenny Sue, was offering up a kind of apology for slavery as practiced by her ancestors. But when she explained that slavery was “customary” at the time, Mac’s father halted her, saying, “I don’t want to hear you say that.” They never talked about it again.
Those who feel the sting of racism can’t be expected to wait as new generations shed the habits of the past. All who believe in equality and democracy have a continuing battle on their hands fighting against the anti-democratic elements that have taken over the Republican Party.
It’s unclear how Addison County can convince Coweta County that we should embrace a multi-racial democratic future of racial and economic justice. But if it is self-evident that “all men are created equal,” as Jefferson wrote, and if we believe that government “of the people, by the people and for the people” must not perish, as Lincoln wrote, then we must stand for free and fair elections, for equality, and for democracy.
It appears that some Americans don’t hold with those founding principles. They remain loyal to a president friendlier to foreign dictators than with democratic allies, who has tried to subvert the electoral process through schemes from Michigan to Ukraine. Resisting the corruption of democracy by a new authoritarian minority requires not just words of denunciation and attitudes of self-righteousness, but the organization and action that are the substance of a vigorous democracy.
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