It’s been a busy week for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson.
Since yelling, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address about health care reform to a joint session of Congress, the South Carolina Republican has apologized to the president, been formally rebuked by his colleagues in the House and seen both his and his Democratic opponent’s coffers grow substantially.
Dowd speculated that the word “boy,” was an unspoken but real element of Wilson’s statement, while Carter said that there are many Americans who have not accepted that we have a black president.
My dear friend and University of Wisconsin History Professor Stephen Kantrowitz spent nine years studying white supremacy in South Carolina as it was reflected and actively shaped by Benjamin Ryan Tillman. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, his biography of the former Democratic activist, South Carolina governor and U.S. Senator, can help inform a discussion not so much about whether Wilson’s statement was racially motivated or not, but on the historic background from which those elements spring.
I have written before about how many converted dissertations bear the mark of an earnest student trying to jump through the hoops necessary to earn a doctorate, a critical credential to enter the academy.
Kantrowitz’s book is a distinct exception. His first chapter does establish the terrain of slavery and geography in South Carolina, but in a readable and coherent way.
From there, he turns his considerable powers of analysis to Tillman.
The period that may be most germane for the discussion of Wilson is the post-Reconstruction era, when many vanquished Southerners felt that their entire way of life was under siege-a sentiment that was strengthened by the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments that granted black people equal protection under the law and black men the right to vote, respectively.
Tillman during this period and later used violence to suppress the movement of black people toward their rights, while at the same time vigorously espousing the importance of the rule of law. In a similar and related way, Kantrowitz shows how Tillman espoused an agrarian vision that he traced back to Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, all of whom were white males. While Tillman occasionally paid lip service to equality, he ultimately advanced a vision that was avowedly white supremacist and thus excluded major sectors of the population. Tillman also had a visceral distrust of the federal government throughout his career.
The connection between Tillman’s justification of lynching and Wilson’s interruption of Obama may initially seem tenuous – some critics say that anyone who disagrees with the president is immediately called a racist – and a closer look reveals a stronger link.
Tillman’s words and actions helped lay the foundation for the violent and oppressive Jim Crow South, the area from which Wilson comes. Wilson’s denunciation of Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter, who very possibly was the product of statutory rape, after the senator’s death was not a race-neutral statement. Neither is his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
One can argue that these types of attitudes is are a specific function of South Carolina, where political operative Rusty DePass recently compared an escaped gorilla to “Michelle’s relatives.”
That would be a superficial and unfortunate misreading. The enthusiastic embrace by conservatives throughout the country of Wilson- “You lie!” t-shirts have already become a hot-selling item – has its roots both in Tillman’s deep-seated aversion to the federal government, and, to some degree, in staunch resistance to Obama’s right as a black man to hold the nation’s highest office.
To be sure, 2009 is not 1868, Wilson is not Tillman and Obama indeed was elected president by a majority that included millions of white voters. But his election and governance continues to rouse some of our nation’s unvanquished ghosts.
Kantrowitz’s book helps us understand their origin.
And that’s no lie.