Tag Archives: segregation

Indiana: Jim Crowing Religious Freedom?

Indiana: the place where some Christians denounce gayness, all in the name of Jesus, a guy who hung out with twelve dudes all the time.

Indiana: the place where some Christians denounce gayness, all in the name of Jesus, a guy who hung out with twelve dudes all of the time.

What in tarnation is happening to America? It seems like everywhere you look, the gays are taking over, demanding to be treated like human beings instead of being the go-to pariahs for self-righteous, sin-selective, persecution-complex-racked, judgmental neo-Pharisees. The nerve. Take Indiana, for example, where Republican Governor Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a form of legislative red meat for holier-than-thou moral crusaders passed with the express intention to not discriminate against the LGBT community — hasn’t gone over as smoothly as the Governor expected.

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The Enduring Popularity of Nazi Comparisons in American Politics

To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

A sign paid for by an Iowa Tea Party group. To some strains of the American electorate, fears of Nazi-style impending rule trump both political nuance and common sense.

Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.

A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.

But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.

Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.

The United States' ownunique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal.

The United States’ own unique history of racialized nationalism and territorial expansion makes Nazi references deeply personal — and visceral.

So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.

Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.

Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.

But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.

Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”

Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.

The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.

The U.S. has its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler's Teutonic ass.

The U.S. has had its own issues with race, but dang-nabbit, we still kicked Hitler’s Teutonic ass.

Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.

On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.

But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

Busting the Filibuster: Some History Behind the Senate’s Reactionary Procedure

Nevada Democratic Senate Goliath Harry Reid has hurt the Right's feelings.

Nevada Democratic Senate Goliath Harry Reid has hurt the Right’s feelings by limiting their capacity for throwing tantrums.

Last week, Harry Reid, the Senate’s mousy, soft-spoken, bespectacled Mormon Majority Leader from the land of perpetual vice colloquially known as the state of Nevada unleashed his inner Incredible Hulk. The normally mild-mannered — but politically shrewd — Reid opened up the ultimate can of senatorial whoop ass by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” a procedural act in the Senate that disregards a century of precedent by voting to end a filibuster with a simple majority rather than requiring the traditional votes of sixty senators. Reid justifiably dropped this bomb in order to overcome years of Republican filibustering of President Obama’s executive branch administration nominees.

While the drooling, milquetoast, Beltway punditocracy has decried Reid’s use of the nuclear option as an affront to non-existent D.C. civility, the Majority Leader’s move was entirely justified. After all, in an unprecedented show of political obstructionism, the grunting collective of curmudgeonly Uruk-hai known as the Republican Party have blocked well over 80 qualified nominees for various executive posts, most notably those Obama nominated for the federal appeals court.

The Republicans’ excessive use of the filibuster as a tool of reactionary obstructionism has given the old Senate procedure a bad name in the press, but really, the filibuster, and the idea behind it, has long been used by minority reactionaries to achieve their political goals in otherwise unfavorable circumstances. But what, exactly, is a “filibuster?” Teagan Goddard’s Political Dictionary offers a fairly precise answer, defining it as “an informal term for any attempt to block or delay U.S. Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.” Essentially, filibusters serve to delay votes and confirmation on key Senate bills and nominations — they’re a stalling tactic.

In American popular culture, filibusters are most well known for being marathon, uninterrupted speeches delivered on the Senate floor with the goal of preventing a full vote on any given legislation. In these instances, the filibuster is a test of stamina, since the speaker can’t stop talking or even take a bathroom break during the procedure. This type of filibuster will forever be embodied by Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which idealistic junior senator Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart is full, warbly voiced glory) talks for twenty-four hours to prevent a corrupt Senate colleague from building a dam on land designated for boys’ camps. As I’ll soon discuss, such marathon filibusters have occurred, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

The current GOP, for example, have abused the filibuster precisely because rather than staging talk-based delays of President Obama’s executive nominations — which are long, sweaty, and generally a pain-in-the-neck — they’ve instead gummed up the political system by merely refusing nominees a basic up or down vote. That’s right: there’s no long speechifying, just procedural chicanery employed by a minority party to ensure government gridlock and to prevent its opponents from implementing their agenda. Historically, different U.S. political parties have used the filibuster to their advantage, but conservatives have often employed this tool in an attempt to extract major concessions from unwilling parties or to delay political changes that threaten traditional social hierarchies. Indeed, the filibuster, regardless of who has employed it, has always been a reactionary tool.

The term “filibuster” stems from a Dutch word meaning “freebooter,” or someone who “took booty or loot;” essentially, a pirate. In American usage, the filibuster has been most often associated with the U.S. Senate, but in the nineteenth century, the word “filibuster” also referred to acts by conservative southern imperialists who sought domination of the Caribbean in the name of the Slaveholding South. As historian William Freehling notes, the most fantasy-prone of antebellum (pre-Civil War) southerners dreamed of expanding the pro-slavery South’s territory to include Cuba, Brazil, and the nations located around the Caribbean Sea, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and New Granada.*

Mississippi pro-slavery radical John Quitman. He really, really wanted to filibuster Cuba, but got...busted.

Mississippi pro-slavery radical John Quitman. He really, really wanted to filibuster Cuba, but got…busted.

To achieve their dreams of an expanded southern empire, private adventurers known as “filibusterers” eschewed diplomatic talk in favor of launching a “filibuster,” an outright invasion of a sovereign nation with the goal of fomenting a revolution, overthrowing the existing government, and annexing the territory to the U.S.* These southern revolutionaries offered to launch filibusters into Latin America in the name of Dixie.

The most successful (at least in the short-term) of the southern filibusterers was a Tennessee lawyer named William Walker. In the Spring of 1855, Walker and a band of 57 loyal “freebooters” landed in Nicaragua, then in the midst of civil war, where they were joined by local forces. The filibusterers soon captured the city of Granada, after which Walker formed a provisional government and declared himself military ruler. Walker then won the presidency in 1856, but his time as Nicaraguan strong-man was short-lived: in September 1860 he was executed by a firing squad in Honduras.

Walker was temperamentally meek and mild when compared to the pro-slavery Mississippi radical John Quitman. A wealthy Natchez planter who owned over 200 slaves, Quitman advocated for the annexation of slave-rich Cuba, a move that would add to southern wealth and southern political influence by providing Dixie with an additional slave state and its attendent U.S. senators and congressional representatives. But Quitman never matched Walker’s filibustering success. Despite raising a 1,000 man army and securing the financial backing of prominent southern planters, governors, and U.S. senators hell-bent on a Cuban invasion, Quitman ran afoul of federal U.S. neutrality laws. In May 1854, President Franklin Pierce declared that he would prosecute any southern filibustering expeditions. Quitman went to court, and his dream of conquering Cuba in the name of the South never materialized.*

The southern filibustering exhibitions of the nineteenth century were thoroughly proactive in design, but they were also ideologically reactionary. Pro-slavery advocates’ dreams of expanding the Slaveholding South’s empire into Latin America grew out of fears of a growing northern anti-slavery movement that sought to limit the spread of slavery within the continental U.S. If northern radicals vowed to halt slavery’s expansion into the American West, pro-slavery southerners reasoned, then the South would secure its own land in Latin America to expand its slave empire. In this respect, the reactionary conservatism of pro-slavery southerners led to proactive schemes to dominate other nations in the name of racial slavery.

The reactionary conservative spirit of the nineteenth century southern filibusterers lived on in the most famous of all spoken filibusters: the epic, 24 hour, 18 minute 1957 filibuster against the Civil Rights Act delivered by conservative South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. While Thurmond never launched an invasion of a foreign nation, his use of the filibuster to thwart legislation aimed at eventually securing equal rights for African-Americans echoed the nineteenth century filibusterers’ aims to secure the permanent status of southern slavery — based as it was on the domination of blacks by whites. Both types of filibusters, then, involved reactionary attempts by conservatives to maintain current social and economic hierarchies. Thus, the term “filibuster,” which originally characterized a piratical conqueror of foreign territory, came to define a type of piratical legislative maneuver in which a senator attempted to defeat the passage of a bill, or at least run off with some legislative booty via concessions from the bill’s sponsors.

Thurmond’s 1957 filibuster remains the longest spoken filibuster on record. He held the Senate floor from 8:54 pm on August 28 until 9:12 pm the next day. To fill the time, he read the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and other historical documents, and before his marathon talk, he took steam baths to dehydrate his body so as to avoid running to the John mid-speech. Thurmond’s filibuster failed to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but he was more concerned with making a grand statement than he was with stopping the bill. And that statement was one of vociferous protest against racial equality, a theme that directly connected Thurmond’s bloviating with the nineteenth century pro-slavery filibusterers of the southern past. The South Carolina senator did not advocate slavery, but he supported the same racist social order that had underpinned slavery before the Civil War.

Strom Thurmond: the embodiment of 20th century filibustering just to be a jerk.

Strom Thurmond: the embodiment of twentiethth century filibustering just to be a jerk.

The historian Richard Hofstadter made this connection in the late 1940s when he wrote about the long theme of racial hierarchy that connected the antebellum South to Thurmond and his Dixiecrat allies. “What makes the situation in the mid-twentieth century most similar to that of a hundred years earlier is that the doctrine of white supremacy and the state of race relations in the nation at large once again have powerful critics,” Hofstadter wrote.* In the case of nineteenth century filibusterers like Walker and Quitman, those critics were northerners who would thwart southern designs to expand slavery. For the filibustering Thurmond, those critics were agents of the federal government who sought to force racial equality on the South.

In both cases, however, conservatives reacted against threats that might upend the South’s system of racial hierarchy. As historian Nadine Cohodas notes in her book Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, “Thurmond stoked the fires of resistance…to his constituents. He was a cheerleader for segregation, even if the cheers he led were not always couched in racial terms but in the antiseptic rhetoric of states’ rights.”* The claim of state’s rights was, of course, the same rhetoric used by nineteenth century southern filibusterers looking to shirk U.S. neutrality laws by claiming that the federal government had no legal right to interfere with racial slavery at the state level. As an aside, Thurmond’s segregationist stances didn’t stop him from fathering illegitimate children with his black servants, just as fears of “miscegenation” didn’t stop antebellum slaveholders from having offspring producing trysts with their human property.

The abuse of the filibuster by the contemporary GOP, then, is in keeping with a long tradition in which conservative minority parties in the U.S. government sought to enforce their will, or at least protest change, by mounting reactionary displays either on the Senate floor or in the jungles of Central America. Of course, the GOP is not defending slavery or racial apartheid, but they are continuing a reactionary American tradition in which conservatives sought to gum up the governmental works in the name of protesting change that might advance historically liberal agendas.

That the GOP is now strongest in the South, where it receives the most intense support for using the filibuster to block every and any appointment by the first black President, only further highlight how the past is always present, even if it can’t prevent the march of social change. No wonder Harry Reid voted to kill the filibuster: some things have to change, regardless of what conservatives think. Besides, the GOP has already vowed to use the “nuclear option” for its own benefits when they inevitably regain control of the senate. Ah, the good times march on.

* See William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Vol. II, Secessionists Triumphant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 145, 148, 165-66.

* See Richard Hofstadter, “From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats,” Social Research 16 (June, 1949): 141.

* See Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond & the Politics of Southern Change (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993), 14.