This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 3 2013
Last week I watched a film that began with a realistic depiction of violent combat at the end of a brutal secessionist civil war. There was no glory in this combat. This was hand to hand, opposing troops rolling around in filthy mud, hacking at each other, kicking faces and stabbing guts at close quarters.
There was much talk throughout the movie of a 13th amendment to the Constitution.
The movie was Lincoln. That particular 13th Amendment related to the abolition of slavery. Lincoln, needed a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
J David Hacker, a demographic historian, has recalculated the death toll of the American Civil War, and increased it by more than 20%. His estimate of the number of dead up to 850,000 – which Hacker says means the social impact is about 37,000 more widows, and 90,000 more orphans than previous estimates.
One commentator says: “The film tells us about the messy reality of governance, and about a democratic process run by flawed mortals whose noble aims often require ignoble means.” True north is essential, the president tells a congressman, but you also have to navigate the swamps and deserts and chasms along the way. If you can’t do that, he asks, “What’s the good of knowing true north?”
Patronage-peddling is given a comic spin in Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Spielberg’s direction. The wiles of “Bilbo” (James Spader) and his group are underlined with comical music to make us laugh at their techniques. In addition to buying votes, Lincoln sends a letter denying any knowledge of a peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. Jo Ann Skousen writing in Liberty was saddened that the audience in the theatre cheered at this: “I was disheartened that they didn’t feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the USA deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn’t surprised. It’s what we expect today.”
I visited Louisiana in 1996 and got the feeling that the Civil War had not ended. Despite the efforts of Lincoln, JFK, LBJ and MLK, Louisiana is still segregated. Seemingly-decent whites speak of blacks in terms that would cause horror in polite society in Europe or Sri Lanka. I was shown around a plantation house by a “docent” employed by the heritage industry to sanitise the horrors of the Old South. Following the civil war, Louisiana was under martial law. Nevertheless, white Democrats blocked black voter-registration. In 1900 African-Americans formed 47% of Louisiana’s population – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters.
White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century. White racists turned to terrorism to dissuade blacks from voting. The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968. The most prevalent alleged crime accusation was murder, followed by a list of infractions that included verbal and physical aggression, spirited business competition and independence of mind. Law-enforcement authorities sometimes participated directly or held suspects in jail until a mob performed the lynching. Lynchings became mass spectacles with a circus-like atmosphere because they were intended to emphasize majority power. Children often attended these public lynchings. A large lynching might be announced beforehand in the newspaper.
Despite Reconstruction, the South became a poverty-stricken backwater and whites re-established their supremacy. Historian Eric Foner argues, “What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.”
Today, African-Americans account for just over 12% of the US population. About 50% of all prison inmates are black. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males age 25 to 29 were in prison, compared to 1.1% of white males. Wilbert Rideau, a former inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola Prison Farm), wrote in 2010 that “slavery was commonplace in Angola with perhaps a quarter of the population in bondage”. Weak inmates were gang-raped, and traded and sold like cattle. C. Murray Henderson, one of the wardens brought in to clean up the prison, said that systemic sexual slavery was sanctioned and facilitated by the prison guards.
Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third-world nations. The average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans was nearly as low in 2003 as in North Korea. In 2003-05, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the US as a whole for African-Americans was 13.6; the rate for White Americans was 5.7 per 1000 births. IMR is generally seen as an indicator of a nation’s level of health development and is one of the best predictors of state failures. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen.
America’s civil war lasted four years and ended 148 years ago. When will the reconstruction and reconciliation process be completed? Has it begun? Is there a mechanism for presenting Louisiana’s case to the UNHRC?