Author Archive

Some questions around the Curtis Flowers case – posted 9/19/2020

September 20, 2020 Leave a comment

Possibly readers saw the story about Curtis Flowers, an African American man from Mississippi who was tried six times for capital murder. The same white prosecutor, Doug Evans, tried for over 20 years to convict Flowers and to see him executed.

The case originated in 1996 when someone shot and killed four people at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Flowers’ convictions have now been overturned and he is a free man. After the sixth trial in which he was convicted and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

The state of Mississippi, through their Attorney General, decided to drop charges. The case was finally dismissed, with prejudice, which means the murder case cannot be brought against Flowers again.

In the six murder trials, four had ended in convictions and two had resulted in hung juries. Flowers spent 23 years in Parchman Prison in a solitary cell on Death Row in spite of the wrongful nature of his convictions. The District Attorney (D.A.) engaged in a pattern of gross prosecutorial misconduct. During the trials, he and his office hid evidence which should have been turned over to the defense. He also consistently used peremptory challenges to keep black people off the jury.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1986 case of Batson v Kentucky that it is unconstitutional to strike potential jurors on account of race but that is exactly what the prosecutor did in the Flowers case. And he did it over and over. The prosecutor has never faced any discipline or penalty for his long history of misconduct. In fact, he was re-elected in 2019 in an unopposed race.

The case got an unusual amount of publicity because of the podcast, In the Dark, from American Public Media. Over a three year period, the people behind the podcast delved into every aspect of the Flowers case. Upon close inspection, the case against Flowers turned into a house of cards and collapsed.

The prosecution’s key witnesses recanted. There were no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence and no DNA evidence connecting Flowers to the murders. The murder weapon was not found in 1996. A Winona local found a 380 caliber pistol in 2001 near the site of the murders. It matched the type of weapon used in the murders and it was turned over to the D.A.’s office but somehow the weapon got lost.

The Mississippi Attorney General ultimately realized there was no case against Flowers.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole case as some kind of nutty aberration but questions abound. How could the same prosecutor be allowed to bring the case six times when he had been found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct as well as repeated Batson violations? Why did the prosecutor consistently pursue only Flowers when he had only the weakest circumstantial evidence? How could the white trial judge arrest and charge an African American hold-out juror with perjury after one of the trials where there was a hung jury?

The case raises larger systemic issues about racism in the criminal justice system and in our society. Why did the Mississippi Bar take no action against the prosecutor over a period of 20 plus years when courts had pointed out and reversed his racist misconduct? How was the D.A.’s conduct not an ethics violation? Why did the Mississippi Attorney General never step into the case to take it away from the D.A.? Why did Mississippi voters in 2019 re-elect this same prosecutor when he had a track record littered with racism ?

The sad truth is that Mississippi has failed to face its past. For all the talk about a new South, the Flowers case reeks of the old South. And, of course, it is not just Mississippi. The Flowers case, in microcosm, highlights an unwillingness to be honest about the terrible history that stains America. While the Flowers case is egregious, there are many other cases where black people have been wrongly fingered and put away. Those cases were not fortunate enough to have any brilliant podcast focus on them.

The history in the Flowers case is instructive in showing the pattern. A serious crime occurs and the prosecutor and police are put under tremendous pressure to come up with a perpetrator. All too often, a black man, almost any black man, will do. The public goes along as long as somebody is charged. The quality of the evidence does not seem to matter. The fact that someone is apprehended satisfies the community, especially the white community.

Flowers was 26 at the time of his arrest. He had no criminal record. There was at least one other suspect who had a history of violence.who was investigated and held in jail for 11 days. His existence was never disclosed by the prosecutors who always asserted Flowers was the only suspect in the case. Even after evidence came out about this suspect through the podcast, the D.A.’s office continued to cover this up.

The podcast more broadly researched D.A. Doug Evans’ use of peremptory challenges to strike black jurors. It was a common occurrence in all of his trials.

In the Dark also found a racist pattern of peremptory questioning of possible jurors. On average, the D.A. asked one question of possible white jurors while asking potential black jurors twenty nine questions. The D.A. used all his peremptory challenges to strike black jurors.

How many other Curtis Flowers are out there? It is a safe bet that all the dirty tricks were not used on him alone.

Any honest reckoning about how far we have come on racism must account for the deeply ingrained patterns demonstrated in the Flowers case. We have moved beyond lynchings to legal lynchings. The Flowers case is Exhibit A. We should not kid ourselves about progress made.

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I wake every day to this by Marge Piercy – posted 9/14/2020

September 15, 2020 1 comment

This Marge Piercy poem appears in the September 2020 issue of Monthly Review. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it. I would note that she has a new poetry collection On The Way Out, Turn Off The Light coming out at the end of September. It is published by Knopf and it will have a whole section of political poems in it. She also has a book of short stories The Cost of Lunch, Etc from PM Press. It is now out in paperback.

I wake every day to this

Marge Piercy

Cruelty seems to win votes.
The shouter is heard. The whisperer
shot to silence. Words turn
to worms and wriggle in our food.

We live in times dangerous
to butterflies, polar bears and us –
The 99% who don’t count.
I bathe in cold fear each dawn.

The news is a rabid bat.
Government is a deadly virus.
There’s no refuge from slow
murder by the state, pollution,

toxins on our plates, plastics
in our blood. Fast murder
by police. The ocean wants
to kill us for poisoning it.

We are a pox upon the earth.
Bees sing repent! Change
before we all die. Do you want
an earth where cockroaches rule?

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Rhinoceros is Now – posted 9/5/2020

September 5, 2020 2 comments

In his theater of the absurd play, Rhinoceros, the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco presents an allegory about how fascism and authoritarianism advance and conquer a society.

In a sleepy French village, townspeople at first hear reports of a rampaging rhinoceros charging through their streets. Then there are reports of a second rhinoceros who has trampled a cat. Soon rhinos are spotted all over town.

The townspeople are perplexed about how to respond. Initially, they believe people are seeing things that are not there but then they evolve and grow upset about the presence of the rhinos. Some think the rhino invasion is a hoax to sell papers. Others think the residents are too intelligent to let rhinos dominate the space. Others, however, venerate the strength and power of the rhinos.

People in the town suffer rhinoceritis and start morphing into rhinos. Instead of being able to think critically, townspeople start repeating cliches. When townspeople realize they cannot stop the transformation, some say it is their individual right to make up their own mind about becoming a rhino. Others become a rhino because they cannot bear to be an outsider.

The play ends with Berenger, the protagonist, being the only one left in town who has not become a rhinoceros. Everyone else has been taken in by the lure of dramatic change represented by the rhinos. Even though he entertains the notion of becoming a rhinoceros, Berenger, Ionesco’s Everyman, shouts, “I am not capitulating”.

Ionesco was inspired to write Rhinoceros out of his own personal experience. He had Jewish background on his mother’s side but he hid his Jewish background and was baptized in the Orthodox Church. He witnessed the spread of anti-semitism and the growth of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement. As a university student, he saw his own philosophy professor use lectures to recruit young people into the fascist movement. Ionescu wrote:

“University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards one after another. We were fifteen people who used to get together, to find arguments, to discuss, to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy…From time to time, one of the group would come out and say “I don’t agree at all with them to be sure, but on certain points, I must admit for example, the Jews”…And that kind of comment was a symptom. Three weeks later, that person would become a Nazi. He was caught in a mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a Rhinoceros. Toward the end, it was only three or four of us who resisted.”

In the late 1920’s, the Romanian radical right argued that Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. The Romanian fascists said Jews had obtained Romanian citizenship fraudulently. Many Romanian Jews were of Ashkenazi descent and had moved from Poland to Romania in the nineteenth century.

Before World War II, Romania had a Jewish population of 700,000. The Jewish community was one of the oldest in Europe. It became a target for xenophobic feelings. The Romanian fascists and their Nazi allies murdered an estimated 280,000 Jews during the war years. Fewer than 9,000 Jews remain in Romania today.

President Trump’s demagogic arguments about illegal immigrants mirror the same type of arguments made by the Romanian fascists against the Jews in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Donald Trump is an angry, rampaging rhinoceros. He is best known for his verbal charge where he tries to scare everyone. The Trump rhino is unusually obese. Most rhinos are herbivores but the Trump rhino exists on a steady diet of fast food. Although lumbering, he has been known to charge in the direction of dollar bills.

In his younger years, during rutting season, he was infamous for hanging out with his rhino pal, Jeffrey Epstein, surveying the herd of very young female rhinos, looking for 10’s. The Trump rhino has a history of gravitating to low places.

Highly unusual in the animal kingdom, this beast demonstrates both a high degree of self-absorption and a very short attention span. The Trump rhino seeks wide open space on golf courses while experiencing a notable fear of enclosure in a zoo-like pen.

The creature has a nasty, vengeful temperament. Due to his mean streak, the Trump rhino can place babies and children in cages for months at a time. He ignores their cries.

As an elderly member of the rhino tribe, he does appear to be experiencing a mental decline. Conspiracy theories have replaced logic. While the ability to delineate truth from lies has always been a problem, as the Trump rhino gets closer to an election, lying goes into hyper-drive.

One branch of the Trump rhino family named Q’Anon has descended into madness entirely.

Those humans who have morphed into Trump rhinos follow the herd blindly. They have no difficulty swallowing all varieties of snake oil. Escaping freedom, they long for submission and surrender to a Dear Leader. The rhino followers love strength and hate weakness. Capacity for empathy has been replaced by a love of cruelty. Brute force is their guiding star.

The Trump rhino pretends to religiosity but winning at all costs is his only religion. And love of money.

If mention of 188,000 (and counting) dead Americans gets in the way of re-election narrative, the story of the pandemic must be buried. The Trump rhino mourns no one. He sees no money in public health.

Ionesco described engaging the fascist true believers in Romania. He said first they regarded him as an alarmist, then a nuisance and finally an enemy to be run down. He said, “….they looked like they wanted to lower their head and charge”.

2020 has become an effort to promote reason and to fight a fascist advance in America. The Trump rhino is not a buffoon – he is a skilled authoritarian politician who should not be underestimated.

We are living our own theater of the absurd. Rhinoceros is now.

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The American “contribution” to Nazi race law – posted 8/29/2020

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

In her speech at the Republican National Convention, Nikki Haley made a point of saying that America is not a racist country. She proved she was no historian. Our tradition of liberty and equality has always been interwoven with our history of racism.

Contrary to Haley’s assertion, America has a history of having been an innovative world leader in the creation of racist law. Although little known or remembered, back in the 1930’s the Nazis looked to America as a source for racist legislation.

In his book, Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman explores this now-forgotten period. Initially, the Nazis did not see America as their enemy. They looked around for countries that could provide a model for how to discriminate and create second class forms of citizenship.

Whitman says the Nazis saw America as a laboratory for experimentation in diminished citizenship rights. They looked at examples like treatment of Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, African Americans and Filipinos. The Nazis particularly surveyed American state laws to see how states had diminished rights for Black people. They aimed to use similar-type legal restrictions on the German Jews.

The Nazis were obsessed with racial purity. They saw history as about race decay. They believed the superior race degenerated by mixing with inferior races. The Nazis saw Jews, Blacks, and all people of color as agents of pollution. They hated mongrelization.

Not surprisingly, the Nazis were most interested in laws about citizenship, immigration, mixed marriages and sexual liaisons. They were highly focused on preventing mixed marriages between so-called Aryans and Jews and wanted to criminalize extramarital sex between these groups.

In the early 1930’s, the Nazis had not yet arrived at their Final Solution ideas. They initially looked at emigration as the solution to the presence of German Jews. Anti-Jewish laws were designed to exclude Jews from government, universities, and the legal profession. The Nazis tightened the screws on the Jewish community to encourage an exodus. In evolving fashion, the Nazis changed course and it became harder for Jews to escape the country. Genocide ultimately replaced emigration.

The Nazis initially looked to the example of American immigration law. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 and the 1924 Immigration Act appealed to them. The 1924 Immigration Act favored Nordics of northern and Western Europe over the “undesirable races” of eastern and southern Europe. Such bias was right up their alley.

A New York incident in 1935 pushed the Nazis toward development of the Nuremberg Laws that codified their prejudice. 1000 anti-Nazi rioters stormed the SS Bremen, a German ocean liner, and ripped down the swastika flag. They threw the flag in the Hudson River. After rioters were arrested, they appeared before Louis Brodsky, a Jewish magistrate in New York City.

Magistrate Brodsky had a history of issuing civil libertarian opinions. In freeing the arrested rioters, he railed against the Nazis calling the swastika a “black flag of piracy” and saying Nazism represented a “revolt against civilization” and “an atavistic throwback to pre-medieval, if not barbaric, social and political conditions”.

Even though these words came from a police court magistrate, the Nazis took offense. Their Nuremberg Laws followed, depriving German Jews of the right to citizenship and full political rights. The Nazis looked at how the United States had deprived African Americans and Native Americans as a positive example justifying their treatment of Jews.

As early as 1928, Hitler had invoked the American conquest of the west as inspiration for the Nazi desire to acquire Lebensraum or “living space” to its east. Hitler expressed admiration how the Americans “had gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage”.

The new Nuremberg Blood Law forbid marriage between Jews and nationals of German blood. It also forbid extramarital intercourse between Jews and nationals of German blood. Jews were not allowed to employ female nationals of German blood under 45 in their households. Punishment for a violation was imprisonment at hard labor.

In the early twentieth century, anti-miscegenation law was pretty common in the United States. Thirty states had declared racially mixed marriages civilly invalid. Eugenics was influential and many Americans opposed marriage between “superior” and “inferior” races.

Anti-miscegenation law lasted in the United States until the 1967 case of Loving v Virginia when the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck it down. Even then, 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws.

The Nazis saw the United States as the leader in models for laws opposing miscegenation. They had trouble finding countries that had laws criminalizing marriage. With the exception of bigamy and age limits, criminalization of marriage was rare.

Mongrelization was a related Nazi obsession. They wanted clarity on whom should be considered a Jew. They had questions like how much Jewish blood was enough to taint a child of part Aryan descent? Interestingly, even the more radical Nazis saw American law as too harsh.

The infamous Southern Senator, Theodore Bilbo from Mississippi, believed even “one drop” of blood was race-defiling. The Nazis generally believed this definition was too extreme.

There is no doubt that even without the American examples they leaned on to buttress their race law, the Nazis were on a road to becoming monsters. Still, it should cause pause to know that the Nazis looked to America both for racist law and racist inspiration.

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Hiking Mount Cardigan – 8/26/2020

August 26, 2020 4 comments
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Sundown towns, revisited – posted 8/23/2020

August 23, 2020 2 comments

In my recent article about sundown towns, I made an effort to define them. I stated such towns were jurisdictions that for decades kept African Americans out so they could remain all-white.

There was one problem though in what I wrote. I did not adequately convey the methods of exclusion.

Sundown signs on the outskirts of towns enforced residential segregation. The wording of these signs was typically something like “N—-—, don’t let the sun set on you here” or “Whites only within city limits after dark”. Sundown towns banned blacks from entering city limits after dark.

In the early twentieth century, signs like this were everywhere across America. Sundown towns were not just a handful of places. The exclusionary effort was national and it reflected the prevailing racism in our culture. Behind the signs were racist vigilante mobs who took enforcement seriously.

The racist exclusion did not begin with African Americans. Leaving aside the Native American experience, in the western United States, Chinese Americans were subject to a parallel sundown town process. Before 1884, Chinese people lived in virtually every town in the West. That changed dramatically over the next 35 years.

Between 1885 to 1920, white people violently drove out the Chinese population in towns across Wyoming, Idaho and in many parts of California. Chinatowns developed in larger cities because so many people were forced out of where they were living across the West. Chinatowns in large cities offered some degree of safety and security. James Loewen wrote:

“The attacks on Chinese in the West grew so bad that Mark Twain famously said, “A Chinaman had no rights that any man was bound to respect, deliberately echoing Roger Taney’s words in Dred Scott. Whites even tried to drive out Chinese from large cities such as San Francisco and Seattle but failed, owing to the enormity of the task.”

The assault on African Americans between 1890 to 1930 was in a similar vein except it covered far wider terrain. Many counties that had African Americans in 1890 had none by 1930. Expelled violently and by other hostile means, African American population swelled in larger cities.

While the history of lynchings have drawn some attention of late, I would submit that the larger context of lynchings is missed. Lynchings sent a pointed message to African Americans that they were not welcome in a geographic region.

Lynchings and other acts of vigilante violence covered a far wider area than just the South. Think West Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, Maryland and California. Sundown towns complement lynching as part of a collective white racist effort toward racial segregation.

American history as conventionally taught simply bypasses much of this racism. The years 1890 to 1930 do not garner that much attention. The history has been submerged and avoided.

In Indiana, there were sundown signs posted in almost every small town, saying “N——, don’t let the sun set on you here”. Intentionally all-white communities were all over the midwest, the west and the north. Blacks also could not eat, sleep or gas at most white-owned businesses. Black people seriously put their lives at risk by disregarding sundown strictures.

Local and regional historians have tended to whitewash this history probably because it is bad for community business. It is hard to be honest about the dark side. The political battles about how history is taught show this reluctance. Additionally, old signs have been destroyed and almost all witnesses to this past are dead. Research is difficult.

President Trump’s recent tweet to suburban voters connects up to this history in the most backward, denialist way. Trump tweeted,

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”

Considering that Trump and his father were sued in the early 1970’s by the federal government for housing discrimination, his tweet is consistent with his past. He is pitching toward the hardcore racial sentiments of his base telling the white suburbanites that he is protecting them from invasion by poor brown and black people.

I would suggest that racial healing begins with recognition of our true history. Recalling and admitting the history of violent expulsions and sundown towns is a beginning. Our nation is not yet at a place where it will widely accept that level of honesty and that is true for many Democrats and the overwhelming majority of Republicans.

The writer Barbara Smith has suggested that we need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to attack white supremacy. I would agree. Attacking white supremacy would result in improvements in the lives of all working people, not just African Americans. If we seriously worked to eradicate poverty, guarantee full employment, implement Medicare for all, and promote fair housing, people of all races would benefit. Such efforts would go far to eliminate the racial wealth gap.

We as a society have to see the racism and its many manifestations before the appropriateness of remedies can be considered.

We have made strides away from sundown towns but not anywhere to the extent we should have. How we move to be a more integrated, less segregated nation should be on the 21st century agenda for America. Certainly it is complicated and will not be easy but we need to end the white flight and the racial segregation attendant to it.

Part of being a multi-racial democracy is integrating neighborhoods across the country. Creating interracial milieus would reduce racist views and the desire to maintain sundown towns.

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Bog Mountain on an August morning – posted 8/23/2020

August 23, 2020 4 comments
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Fair Wayne Bryant: Way Past Time For Review – posted 8/15/2020

August 16, 2020 3 comments

The case of Fair Wayne Bryant registered a small blip in the media and then quickly disappeared. This is all-too-typical about how our system deals with gross acts of racism by our judicial branch of government. Shock is followed by cynical acceptance and silence.

On July 31, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review Bryant’s request to review his sentence. Bryant has been serving a life sentence for stealing a pair of hedge clippers. So far, he has spent almost 23 years in prison. When arrested, he was 38 years old and now he is over 60.

He is a victim of habitual offender laws. He had prior convictions. In 1979, the state convicted Bryant of attempted armed robbery. He received a sentence of ten years at hard labor. That was his only violent offense. He had three subsequent crimes: possession of stolen goods in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989 and simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling in 1992.

Habitual offender laws allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for crimes that normally would not warrant them. The prosecutor can use the earlier convictions to seek the harsher sentence and that is what happened in Bryant’s case.

When the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed Bryant’s request for review, the five white justices on the court denied the request. They provided no reason for the decision. The Chief Justice of that court, Bernette Johnson, an African American woman, dissented. Chief Justice Johnson argued that a “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose”.

The sentence is so shocking and excessive and out of proportion to the crime alleged that you have to ask how this could happen. The answer is wrapped up in the history of American racism. Chief Justice Johnson explained it this way:

“In the years following Reconstruction, Southern states criminalized recently-emancipated African American citizens by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft associated with poverty. These measures enabled southern states to continue using forced-labor (as punishment for a crime) by African Americans even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.”

Johnson went on to say these laws were called “Pig Laws”. She said they targeted actions such as stealing cattle or swine that were considered stereotypical “negro” behavior. The Pig Laws lowered the threshold for what constituted a crime and increased the severity of punishment.

In her dissent, Johnson wrote that Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans. Trivial offenses and many misdemeanors were treated as felonies, with harsh sentences and fines. Laborers had to work off their debts to secure their release.

The South never reconciled to the defeat of white supremacy after it lost the Civil War. Black Codes led to devices like Pig Laws and the first wave of prison mass incarceration in the 1870’s. Since slavery was no longer an option, the Southern white power structure created a new form of forced labor.

Tens of thousands of African Americans became victims of an aggressive enforcement of petty crimes like petty theft, vagrancy or “insulting gestures”. The South needed a cheap labor force and it created a system of convict leasing where prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. When federal troops left the South in 1877, the last protection for black people was removed. African Americans of that era became slaves by another name.

That system went on for decades until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Cases like Fair Bryant’s are just a new version of the same old Pig Laws. About 80% of people in Louisiana incarcerated under the habitual offender laws are black. Such laws are, without a doubt, a driver of mass incarceration.

Chief Justice Johnson pointed out in her dissent that since his conviction in 1997, Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667.

In this case, the five white justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court rubber-stamped judicial savagery. Since they offered no explanation, we do not know why. In effect, their collective knees remain on the neck of Fair Bryant.

There is no substitute for protest. Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, has suggested some good ideas, from writing letters, to firing off messages on social media, to signing a petition on demanding Bryant’s release. The Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, can grant clemency and free Mr. Bryant. As citizens, we have the power to call this out and try to bring attention to the case.

Sister Helen suggested writing Bryant. His mailing address is:

Fair Wayne Bryant, #91967
Cypress 3
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712

I imagine it might be encouraging to get some support after 23 years behind bars. On her website at, Sister Helen lists do’s and don’ts so the letter will get to him.

The prison where Bryant has been held in Angola was the site of a former slave plantation. His case shows we are not that far away from that time. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society. He deserves clemency and a pardon immediately.

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Thaddeus Stevens, Anti-Racist American Hero – posted 8/8/2020

August 9, 2020 4 comments

Among truly great Americans, I would bet Thaddeus Stevens might be the least well known. An extremely controversial figure in his lifetime, Stevens was a leading light of the abolitionist movement both before and immediately after the Civil War.

Because of his heroism, he deserves far more recognition than he has ever received. He threw in his lot with African Americans at a time that was exceedingly rare among any white people. If anyone is looking to put up statues, Stevens is a great candidate.

Born in Vermont, he grew up extremely poor. His father abandoned the family when he was an early adolescent, leaving his mother with four young boys to raise. Thaddeus was born with a clubfoot. There was no treatment for him and he had to live with his deformity and the cruel reaction of other children. He always identified with disabled people and other persecuted minorities.

Since he could not physically labor on the family farm, his mother sacrificed and worked continuously so he could receive an education. He attended the University of Vermont and then Dartmouth College.

In 1815, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania and decided to become a lawyer. He developed a very successful law practice. He had a knack for business and he also started an ironworks which also did well. He ran for the Pennsylvania state legislature and got elected in 1831.

He was an advocate for free public education in the state and his legislative effort ended in a huge victory. It was 1835. Many states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, not to mention the entire South, did not have state-wide free school systems until after the Civil War. He knew from personal experience the impediment that illiteracy and ignorance were to the poor.

From early in his career Stevens had a reputation for generosity. One story had him coming up on a sheriff’s sale where a widow was about to lose her farm. Stevens joined the bidding and bought the farm. He then wrote a check for the debt owed and ordered the sheriff to make the deed to the widow.

Many requested his help and he gave unstintingly. I think it is fair to say Stevens had a dark view of humanity though, especially the mercenary side of people. Still, he was an idealist with a sense of pragmatism. He was hell-bent on ending slavery and that always was his moral touchstone. He looked through the lens of whether a particular bill or project would advance the struggle against slavery and racism.

Stevens became an abolitionist in the 1830’s. He was active in the Underground Railroad. His home in Lancaster, Pa., had a concealed section where fugitive slaves hid. As a lawyer he defended fugitive slaves and as a legislator he fought pro-slavery legislation.

In 1851, Stevens led a team of four lawyers who defended 38 African Americans accused of treason against the United States. Slavecatchers came into Pennsylvania attempting to hunt down four escaped slaves. Supporters of the escaped slaves came to the rescue and a melee ensued. A Maryland slaveholder was killed.

After a trial held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the jury acquitted the defendants on the treason charge. Fortunately for them, they were not charged under the new Fugitive Slave Act.

Stevens had been a Whig but he decided to become an early member of the Republican Party. Slavery supporters called him a Jacobin. He was a leader of the militant, anti-slavery Radical Republicans, a faction in the party. He got elected to Congress for a second time in 1858. He opposed any concessions to the South. After President Lincoln’s election, he constantly pushed Lincoln on slavery and related issues.

By any accounting, Stevens’ accomplishments in Congress were tremendous. He was appointed Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he played a central role in financing the Civil War for the Union.

As early as November 1861, he introduced a bill in Congress providing for total emancipation of slaves. He believed President Lincoln had the necessary war power to free all the slaves and he repeatedly went to the White House and urged Lincoln to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation which Lincoln eventually did.

He was one of the first politicians to push for enlistment of black men into the all-white Union Army. He also successfully advocated for equal pay for the black soldiers with their white counterparts.

Stevens later played a central role in passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Upon passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Stevens said:

“I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.”

Stevens did not want the political gains of the Civil War to slip away. His biographer, Fawn Brodie, called him “a father of Reconstruction”. He favored the radical position that the federal government should confiscate the lands owned by the Southern aristocracy and give it to the former slaves as 40 acre farms.

Against great opposition, he fought for universal suffrage. He locked horns with now-President Andrew Johnson over suffrage as well as a raft of other issues. Stevens became an impeachment manager in the effort to impeach Johnson. He said:

“The President would have the former Confederacy remain a slave empire under a different name. We cannot allow that or forgive that.”

Called “the Great Commoner”, Stevens always remained a unique character. He was not religious. He loved gambling. He lived with a woman of mixed race, Lydia Smith, which was scandalous at the time. The circumstances of the relationship were a mystery. In his movie, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has Tommie Lee Jones play Stevens and Spielberg made it clear he believed Lydia Smith and Stevens were lovers.

Stevens had a rapier wit which he used to advantage in Congress. He was also a master of parliamentary procedure. In introducing a speaker, he once said, “I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks”.

On one occasion walking a narrow path in Lancaster, he encountered a political enemy who said, “I never get out of the way for a skunk”. Stevens stood aside and replied, “I always do”.

Stevens’ last wish was to be buried in an integrated cemetery in Lancaster. He chose the words for his tombstone;

“ I repose in this quiet and secluded spot,
Not from any natural preference for solitude
But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race
By Charter Rules
I have chosen this that I might illustrate
In my death
The Principles which I advocated
Through a long life

In this era of George Floyd, when America is trying to find its soul, the example of Thaddeus Stevens shines.

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August – posted 8/2/2020

August 2, 2020 4 comments
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