Yesterday morning an effigy of Barack Obama was found hanging by a noose from a tree on the University of Kentucky campus -- the campus where I study the history of racial violence and racism in Kentucky, the campus where I teach that same history to students. (link here) I presume that if/when the perpetrators of this are caught, they'll cry crocodile tears about being ignorant of the implications of their action, being ignorant of the history of racial inequality, violence, and lynching that has plagued this state since before emancipation. And I will be the first person to stand up and call "bullshit." Even for 18 year old freshmen, the weight that these images carry in American -- particularly Southern -- society is too great not to be noticed. Sure, there was the effigy of Sarah Palin hung recently, and we should too decry that as inappropriate. But the two acts ARE NOT equal. There is too much cultural baggage attached to the hanging of black men to not consider this an act of racial intimidation.
Strangely, though, I am not outraged; I am not livid. Perhaps I should be. Instead, I am disappointed; I am saddened. I am, frankly, embarassed. On Saturday I am going to Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn. to deliver a paper on the state-sanctioned racial violence of the Kentucky National Legion during Reconstruction. I am honestly nervous about having to hold my head up in front of my audience and deliver this paper. Does this undermine my credibility as a historian representing the University of Kentucky? How does the horiffic act of a member (presumably) of my institution cast me? Was it one of my students? One of my classmates? My paper's title is drawn from a Republican newspaper editor's sighing acceptance of his inability to stem the tide of the state's campaign of violence and lynching, every bit the equal of states in the former Confederacy. "So Goes Democratic Law in a Democratic State." I can begin to understand that Republican editor, a voice crying out in the wilderness, pointing to the racism in American society, despite our best attempts to hide it, to call it something else, to justify it in some way.
I think I will give a short preface to my paper, acknowledging the effigy and asking the audience to think about what Kentucky's history of racial inequality and violence -- or of inequality and violence toward any group -- may have to bear on this incident, on this election. I claim that insecurity brought on by the social chaos of slavery's end motivated this response. That economically unstable, socially precarious, and politically threatened young white Kentuckians lashed out against African Americans attempting to claim political equality. They claimed that a "Black Peril" was upon them, threatening to overtake everything they held dear. I claim -- and they claimed at the time -- that a political contest was about more than the office at stake. It was a contest for the soul of the state. Hopefully, then, the audience at this panel might start a conversation through the lens of history that bears meaning for today. This is what history does. This is why historians matter. They clarify the murky memories of the past, and provide examples of when society achieved great things and when it didn't.
I'll close with a quote from an item in Frederick Douglass's New Era from Aug. 18, 1870 commenting on the first election in Kentucky when blacks could vote. In the face of racism, the Democratic Party machine, and the bayonets of the militia, Douglass remains hopeful for a brighter, more equal, future. Hopefully Kentckians, Americans, can do the same today.
[White Kentucky] built their shanty on the sand bank of slavery, but the rising tide of freedom and equality has flooded back into the wretched hovel, and the whole organization has set to work with a "White Man's Party" mop, to sweep back the wave of human progress. They are doing their best. There is a splash and a spattering, but the tide ever rolls inward, and the great ocean of liberty outside shows the utter feebleness and futility of the effort. While they are vigorously mopping, the sand bank is melting away, and the whole structure will speedily cave in, or be carried out to sea, and engulphed beyond the hope of recovery. That tide is resistless.