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The Conservative Tradition of Attacking Teachers and Education

Tony Wikrent's picture
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Cross posted from Real Economics.

So, Republicans and Tea-baggers today, after giving tens of billions in tax cuts to millionaires and corporations, are demanding steep cuts in state budgets, including for education. They are especially targeting teachers’ pay.

Some people just can’t wrap their minds around how utterly destructive the conservatives’ agenda is. A few days ago, daveinchi tried to get a grip on this with his DailyKos diary, DESTROY EVERYTHING: Nihilism on the "Right".

But what is really hard to comprehend is that the conservative attack on education is actually a quite coherent part of conservative ideology. To understand this, you first have to understand that the conservative ideology is intended to create a society based on strict class lines. As Philip E. Agre wrote in his classic August 2004 essay, What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?:

Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Today, conservatives hide their true anti-democratic oligarchic agenda behind the rhetoric of balanced budgets and budget cuts. But, back in the period right after the Civil War, conservatives were much more honest and forthright in explaining why they attacked education and teachers.

Though defeated militarily, with large swathes of their states totally devastated by the campaigns of Union generals such as Sherman and Sheridan, the South’s conservatives - led by the South’s oligarchy of planters, slave-holders, and merchants, and many former Confederate officers -absolutely refused to accept the idea of racial, political, and economic equality with others,. Unwilling to accept the end of white race domination, state legislatures and local governments throughout the former Confederacy enacted a series of new laws carefully designed to place blacks in positions of inferiority, socially, economically, and politically. The 1865 Mississippi Black Code, for example, actually stipulated terms of involuntary servitude for black children who were either orphans or whose parents, in the opinion of local officials, were unable to provide “properly” for the support of said children. These draconian rules were roughly disguised under the rubric of “apprenticeship”:

2. MISSISSIPPI APPRENTICE LAW
Sec. 1....It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semi-annually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person, on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.
SNIP

Sec. 4....If any apprentice shall leave the employment of his or her master or mistress, without his or her consent, said master or mistress may pursue and recapture said apprentice, and bring him or her before any justice of the peace of the county, whose duty it shall be to remand said apprentice to the service of his or her master or mistress; and in the event of a refusal on the part of said apprentice so to return, then said justice shall commit said apprentice to the jail of said county. . . .

As Wikiepdia notes:

in response to planters’ demands that the freedpeople be required to work on the plantations, the Black Codes declared that those who failed to sign yearly labor contracts could be arrested and hired out to white landowners. Some states limited the occupations open to African Americans and barred them from acquiring land, and others provided that judges could assign African American children to work for their former owners without the consent of their parents.

One of the most odious measures of these “Black Codes” were the “vagrancy statutes” under which almost any person walking along the street, or simply resting along a street or road, could be accosted by local officials and declared to be a vagrant. And that is exactly what happened.

So, you would think that finding a bunch of black kids spending their days in school would be a welcome alternative to finding them vagabonding about town. Well, not if you’re recently defeated white racists, vengefully itching to “rise again” and still intent on keeping blacks down. Before the Civil War, every slave state had made it a felony to so much as teach a slave to read or write. But now that the institution of slavery had been swept away in the bloody torrent of Civil War, with Freedmen's Bureaus established and sanctioned by the Union government, and often protected by federal troops, it was, uhm, impolitic to actually write into the new “Black Codes” prohibitions against education. Especially because the weak response of President Andrew Johnson to the South’s Black Codes stirred up a rebellion among radical Republicans in Congress, who over rode a number of Johnson’s vetos to impose “Radical Reconstruction” on the ex-slave states.

So, the Southern oligarchs and racists turned to their traditional means of enforcing their will: terrorism, violence, and outright murder. Throughout the South, schools for black students were attacked and burnt, and teachers threatened, beaten, and even murdered. As Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer note in their 2009 book, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy

For Klanners and white supremacists, black education was a focus of special fury. It was the generous Mississippian who viewed education for blacks as anything but useless, if not trouble. "A monkey with his tail off is a monkey still," the Natchez Courier opined.

In Okolona, an Episcopal minister who tried to teach some young blacks had four shots fired at him. On the night of March 9, 1871, in Aberdeen, a Northern teacher named Alien P. Huggins was called out of his house by a circle of white-robed men. They were "gentlemanly fellows, men of cultivation, well-educated, a much different class of men than I ever supposed I would meet in a K-Klux gang," Huggins said, but their message was not gentle. They told him they did not like his "radical ways" and the fact that he had instituted public schooling and was trying to "educate the Negroes." He had ten days to leave the state or they would kill him.

Huggins replied he would leave when he was ready. In response, one of the men undid a stirrup leather from his horse and began to beat Huggins with it, saying he was "just such a man as they liked to pound." On the seventy-fifth blow, Huggins passed out. He came to with pistols aimed at him and a chorus of voices warning him that if they laid eyes on him after ten days, he was dead. The beating left Huggins hobbled for a week but unbowed; he testified to the event before Congress and returned deputized as a U.S. marshal and began to round up Klanners for arrest.

Let me note here that in the years of Radical Reconstruction, roughly 1867 to 1873, black suffrage and Federal Army repression of Confederates allowed open elections, and a number of blacks were elected to office in the South, including as lieutenant governor in Mississippi. A former Union major general, Adelbert Ames, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while a lieutenant of artillery at First Manassas, was twice elected governor of Mississippi. But in no way were the old Southern oligarchs and Confederates resigned to accepting this state of affairs. Interestingly, by the early 1870s, they were beginning to rebuild their political muscle (unfortunately, as the Democratic Party – this is the sad history where Limbarf gets his weird material for attacking Democrats as racists today) using the specious charge that Governor Ames’ spending on black schools, black hospitals, and welfare was bankrupting the state (which sounds eerily familiar to modern conservatives’ claims that social spending today is bankrupting the country). As they grew in political strength, these Southern conservatives became more bold in their aggressiveness and violence. By the time of the November 1875 election, the situation had become so bad that Governor Ames appealed to President Grant for federal troops to help restore order. (Here is an interesting headline from the New York Times of May 6, 1876.)

Unfortunately, a group of Ohio Republican leaders had already told Grant that any further extension of the Federal Army into the ex-slave states would result in the Republicans losing control of Ohio. Grant decided that holding Ohio was more important than saving Mississippi, and refused Ames’ request. Grant’s decision spelled the end of Radical Reconstruction, the return to power of the old southern oligarchs, and the abandonment of the freedmen to the cruel mercies of the South’s conservatives. History.com notes:

When Democrats waged a campaign of violence to take control of Mississippi in 1875, Grant refused to send federal troops, marking the end of federal support for Reconstruction-era state governments in the South. By 1876, only Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were still in Republican hands. In the contested presidential election that year, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise with Democrats in Congress: In exchange for certification of his election, he acknowledged Democratic control of the entire South. The Compromise of 1876 marked the end of Reconstruction as a distinct period, but the struggle to deal with the revolution ushered in by slavery's eradication would continue in the South and elsewhere long after that date.

By the way, when the Confederate/Democrats seized power in Mississippi through voter intimidation in 1875, they proceeded to force Governor Ames to resign by beginning impeachment proceedings against him. They were really using old tricks back in 1994.

The outrages and violence committed by the South’s conservatives in their drive to return to power were so numerous and so terrible, that they became the subject of special hearings by a joint committee of the U.S. Senate and House. (Adelbert Ames played no small role in forcing these hearings into being held.) Bowdoin College has a good summary of the hearings, which became known as the “Klan hearings.”

However, the hearings, formally entitled, Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, were about the only action any branch of the federal government took to stop the growing reign of terror in the South. The Compromise of 1876 which settled the presidential election meant that there would be no action by the national government to “intervene in the affairs” of the ex-slave states, which now subjected their black populations to new regimes of laws that in all but name kept blacks in bondage for nearly another century.

The website www.jimcrowhistory.org, originally created in support of PBS’s 2002 series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, includes a teaching syllabus that provides excerpts from the Klan hearings, reporting violent and murderous attacks on schools and teachers in the South:

One of these teachers (Miss Allen of Illinois), whose school was at Cotton Gin Port in Monroe County, was visited ... between one and two o'clock in the morning on March 1871, by about fifty men mounted and disguised. Each man wore a long white robe and his face was covered by a loose mask with scarlet stripes. She was ordered to get up and dress which she did at once and then admitted to her room the captain and lieutenant who in addition to the usual disguise had long horns on their heads and a sort of device in front. The lieutenant had a pistol in his hand and he and the captain sat down while eight or ten men stood inside the door and the porch was full. They treated her "gentlemanly and quietly" but complained of the heavy school-tax, said she must stop teaching and go away and warned her that they never gave a second notice. She heeded the warning and left the county.

SNIP

They [the Klansmen] said that I had committed a great wrong; I had kept a Sunday-school which I was forbidden to do. They told me that this thing of teaching ... was something they did not allow; that the church they belonged to never sanctioned [allowed] any such thing; that it was not sanctioned by the neighborhood or the country and it must not be done, and finally they told me it should not be done and when I proceeded on with the Sunday-school, they said to me, "We gave you orders to stop and you have continued against our orders; now you have got to stop." --SAMUEL ALLEN, a church Sunday-schoolteacher, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Select
Committee, 1871

There were many who understood exactly the new conditions of servitude that conservatives were imposing upon the South. In his memoirs, former Union general Oliver O. Howard, who lost his arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862, but remained as an army corps commander for the remainder of the war, and who after the war headed the Freedmens Bureau, and later founded Howard University in Washington DC to educate African-Americans being denied a college education, wrote this in describing the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations:

The oath of ... every chief to obey without hesitation the orders of some `inner circle,' constituted societies which in some parts of the South came to rival the Nihilistic assassins of Russia.... [Its] main object from first to last was somehow to regain and maintain over the negro that ascendancy which slavery gave, and which was being lost by emancipation, education, and suffrage. (Emphasis mine.)

Howard is also quoted as saying:

The opposition to Negro education made itself felt everywhere in a combination not to allow the freedmen any room or building in which a school might be taught. In 1865, 1866, and 1877 mobs of the baser classes at intervals and in all parts of the South occasionally burned school buildings and churches used as schools, flogged teachers or drove them away, and in a number of instances murdered them.

Howard also described some of the Klan's terrorist actions taken against the freedmen's schools. In Charleston, West Virginia, after the KKK threatened a bureau teacher, no one could be found to board the teacher. In Louisiana, "Miss Jordan's school at Gretna was entered by ruffians; the walls of her room were covered with obscene pictures and language''; in Ouachita, Texas, a teacher named Frank Sinclair was murdered, and "other helpers there were so put in jeopardy of their lives that they could only teach secretly in the cabins.'' In Rock Spring, Kentucky the schoolhouse was burned to the ground and the black teacher told to leave the country.

In his 1924 book, The Southern Oligarchy: An Appeal in Behalf of the Silent Masses of Our Country Against the Despotic Rule of the Few, William H. Skaggs, a progressive Alabama political leader who was eventually forced to flee to the North, writes:

The traditions of the Southern people were opposed to free schools. The institution of slavery that dominated in all economic, social and civic affairs of the South was opposed to education except for the privileged class of the social and political aristocracy. In theory and "actual practice it was held that parents should provide for the education of their children the same as for food and clothes. Attempts were sometimes made to provide schools for poor children by the gifts of generous friends, but in such cases the suggestion of poverty placed the schools almost on a level with the almshouse. In the few cases where "free schools" were provided they were seldom patronized by those who needed them most.

Referring to the history of the common schools in the Southern States, the late Dr. J. L. M. Curry, manager of the Peabody Fund, and one of the most active and useful workers in the cause of education in the South, said: It must be borne in mind that under the ancient regime no public school system providing universal education existed in the South. There was no system adequate even to the education at public expense of the white youth. Our peculiar social system forbade the education of the Negroes. That obviously would have been impossible and dangerous. . . .

Here is a table of education statistics comparing northern with southern states, that Skaggs included in his book a few pages later:
Photobucket

In his 2007 book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Kevin Phillips has two chapters that trace today's conservative ideology directly back to the Confederacy. Chapter 5, "Defeat and resurrection: the Southernization of America" and Chapter 6, "The United States in a Dixie cup : the new religious and political battlegrounds."

While Phillips provides the general historical background for much of the American conservative movement, in 2008, Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward H. Sebesta looked at the rise of explicit neo-Confederate and "white heritage" groups in Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction. A small excerpt from the book's website:

Four months later, on 5 May 1996, National Public Radio's Weekend Edition broadcast an interview with Southern League president and manifesto co-author Michael Hill. In response to Diane Roberts's questions about democracy, Hill said: You know, the South has never bought into the Jacobin notion of equality. The South has always preferred a natural hierarchy. You're always going to have some violations of people's rights, for whatever reason, but we just believe that a natural social order left to evolve organically on its own would be better for everyone.

Modern conservatives will howl about how I use the word “conservative” here to link them to the racists and terrorists that subverted the peace after the Civil War and re-imposed servitude on African-Americans. Let them disavow Texas governor Rick Perry’s talk about state rights and secession, and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow Southern League president Michael Hill’s frank admission that “The South has always preferred a natural hierarchy,” and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow Michelle Bachman’s threat of insurrection that "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back," and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow the anti-Obama hotheads who brandished assault weapons at presidential town hall meetings on health care in the summer of 2010, and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow Sarah Palin’s message urging anti-Obama protestors to “reload,” and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow the Republican governors of Virginia and Mississippi, Robert McDonnell and Haley Barbour, who issued state proclamations celebrating “Confederate History Month,” and I’ll take their arguments seriously. Let them disavow Tea Party leaders and conservatives in the Oklahoma Legislature who want to create a new volunteer militia to “help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty,” and I’ll take their arguments seriously.

Until then, they can just stfu, and deal with the facts of their real heritage.

Conservatives claim to uphold the original intent of the following fathers. So, I’ll close by throwing a quote from John Adams in their face. Adams, who served as our second President, was most proud of his work in writing the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Adams was particularly proud of Section 11, Chapter 6 of the Massachusetts Constitution, a section he wrote entirely himself:

"Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. "
— John Adams (Constitutional Documents of the United States of America)
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