Blogs > Cliopatria > IN RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT ...

Jan 5, 2004 4:04 pm


The last eight months of blogging has been a wonderful opportunity for this evangelical Southern left-Republican historian (ya got all that?) to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable in historical perspective. Here are a few highlights:

On 30 June 2003, I noted that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist paid lip service to civil and religious pieties when he pronounced marriage a sacrament. The problem is that Frist is a Presbyterian and Presbyterians, like most Protestants, do not regard marriage as a sacrament. Andrew Sullivan and Doc Searls thought my point well taken. Sorry, Bill, it's back to catechetical instruction for you!

Comedian Larry Miller, writing in the Weekly Standard, Kevin Drum at"CalPundit", and "Free Speech" shared my endorsement of the California grocery workers' strike. My original post, here, is bloggered (scroll down), but I delight in the humility and presumptuousness of it.

I remember all of the people that Larry Miller writes about: the dear little bag lady, who wore a wig to cover her baldness, but would do anything to help a customer; the cashier who worked two jobs to support his mother; and the stockboy, who wore a dress when he went out at night, but who never missed a day at work. For them and in defense of their contracts, do not shop at Ralphs, Vons, or Albertsons. More than that, I want to hear about some of you high-toned historians on the left coast joining those picket lines. Don't make me name names. You know who you are!
I will be seeing some of you at this week's American Historical Association convention in Washington. I will have a sign-up sheet available and I will be taking names.

As election day approached, the blogosphere's Left, Atrios, Josh Marshall, Jack O'Toole, and Tom Spencer (see 24 and 27 October), contested my argument that Republican efforts to place challengers in heavily Democratic African American precincts in Louisville, Kentucky, were not necessarily an effort to suppress the African American vote. Fortunately, I had support from Eugene Volokh, but the telling evidence was the post-election silence. Republicans won the governor's race in Kentucky and there was no post-election claim of any voter intimidation. You can bet there would have been if there had been any justification for it.

Again, Volokh and I (scroll down to 10 November) defended Emory University Professor Paul Courtright's freedom of research and inquiry when he was attacked by some Hindus for defamation of a Hindu god. "Raving Atheist" took issue with us. Rave on.

Finally, there is that other opportunity for some of my fellow high-toned historians to get up a decent picket line: at the AHA convention in Washington this week, when Jim McPherson presents the first Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service to Senator and former Klansman Robert Byrd of West Virginia (scroll down to 13 December). My fellow historian, H. D. Miller at"Traveling Shoes," and Craig Schamp at"Logographer" join me in protesting the award to Senator Byrd. Can you imagine the howl of protest that would have gone up if the AHA had chosen to give such an award to Strom Thurmond or Trent Lott? Byrd belonged to the Klan for only a year during World War II, but he called for its rebirth in 1946 when he was first elected to Congress. Byrd spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes in a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was the only non-Southern Democrat to vote against it. He voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but as recently as two years ago he used the word"nigger" on national television without batting an eye. It is one thing to forgive an old man his youthful indiscretions, tho I'm not very forgiving of Strom Thurmond's. It is another thing entirely to single him out for an inaugural award for civil service. Shame on us!

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 1/9/2004

Ms. Cornett, Amongst your points, that I am caricaturing Southern white people to attack Byrd won't wash. I am a Southern white people. There is abundant evident in Senator Byrd's own papers which document the case against him, including a statement in which he resolves that he would never serve in an army with African Americans. You are defending Byrd on grounds in his record which are indefensible. Take on some worthy cause.

Barbara Cornett - 1/8/2004

I think Byrd deserves an award for public service and I'm glad he is being recognized. Evidently so do others since they are giving him the award. Perhaps HNN should get the views of the ones who are giving the award and allow them to put their reasons on here as well as their views of Byrd. He said he was sorry he ever joined the Klan. Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.

Robert Byrd may well have said the word nigger but there is no doubt that the policies of the republican party hurt blacks while the policies that Byrd works for would help them. Is it asking to much to expect people to be intellectually honest rather then resorting to phony theatrics and pretence and using a word like nigger to stir up controversey and make a case against someone just because they don't personally like him, perhaps because they are bigots themselves? In the context of how Bryd used the word it is clear that he meant absolutely no negetive comment against blacks. If that is incorrect then please explain how he meant to make disparaging remarks against them since I failed to see it.

I don't think I campaign against disparaging comments against southerners. I just want the same rules applied to southern people as everyone else. I campaign against comments and attitudes like Mr Luker's. He is using a stereotype against southern white people to invent a case against Byrd and that is exactly what makes me upset. It seems self evident that Robert Bryd never made a negetive comment against blacks when he used the word nigger. If I am mistaken then I welcome you to show me how his comments were against blacks.

Mr Luker never even quoted Bryd's comments when he made his attacks on him which doesn't seem fair to me. Show us the comments of Robert Bryd! Don't we have a right to see the evidence against him? All I am asking for is fairness. You have no right to attack him just because he is southern and white. You are guily of stereotyping and making him seem guilty without any evidence whatsoever being presented and I have the distinct feeling that he is being judged by different standards then would be applied to others.

Here are Byrd's speeches

Jonathan Dresner - 1/7/2004

Ms. Cornett,

Your protestations against "political correctness" are rather ironic, considering your relentless campaign against disparaging comments and stereotypes regarding white southerners.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/7/2004

Use the word, if you wish, Ms. Cornett. I believe in freedom of speech. Do not expect me to cite you with a major inaugural award from my profession's most important organization. Have I failed to make that point?

Barbara Cornett - 1/7/2004

When Senator Byrd used the term nigger on tv he made the statement that there was such a thing as a white nigger, meaning that the word nigger was not about skin color, I know because I watched him the night he made the statement and even remember that he was wearing a white suit.

I don't see anything wrong with that comment and I think it is regretful that people have to end up apologizing for something they said or did because others choose to twist its meaning to serve their own political purposes and their comments get more coverage then the original statement or deed which they are critizing.

Byrd is my hero for the way he fights for and defends the Constitution of the United States which is coming under so much attack today. The Congress should never have given the White House the power to start a war in Iraq no matter what the Bush white House was claiming about WMD.

Words are words but deeds and actions are what count. Political correctness is so much bs. Byrd has been called a lot of names in his lifetime simply because of where he is from and nobody paid a price for the names they called him. If someone like Paul Wellstone were defending the Constitution the way Byrd is they would be getting awards right and left as well as all kinds of media attention. Saying the word nigger is not a crime and people who treat others in a spiteful way are worse then people who say nigger.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/6/2004

Richard, Odd that I don't see Dean's reaction to the Episcopalians' blocking the bike path in quite the same light you do. I don't know the details of the case, but I can imagine him legitimately believing that his fellow Episcopalians were selfishly obstructing the common good.
I lived through the Methodists absorption of the EUBs. It really was that more than it was a "merger." Oddly, absorbing smaller groups has been the Methodists' primary means of fighting membership decline. Had I been an EUB, I'd have had very mixed feelings about it all. They gave up particular identity, but for the most talented among them, it meant broader avenues for talent. An Episcopalian now, are you? Episcopalians also suffer from the Methodists' inclination to doctrinal unparticularity. You want particularity? Try being Amish.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/6/2004

I understand your dismissal of my point as mere partisan political tit for tat, but it would hold more water if I had not also been an aggressive critic of both Senator Thurmond and Senator Lott.
I could turn the tables on your argument about Republican apologetics by observing that, after all, neither Thurmond nor Lott had ever been members of the KKK.
As for the use of "nigger," like Byrd, I grew up in the upper South, it was a word my grandfather used, but it was a word my parents knew was offensive. Were they still living, they would be older than Senator Byrd. My parents would have washed my mouth out with soap had I used that word. Senator Byrd used the word on camera and apologized for its use only later, when an aid reminded him that it was a mistake.
Finally, may I ask you if you were quite so enthusiastic about the independence of the legislative branch of the government when Democrats occupied the White House?
If this civic award is itself a mere partisan gesture, then we are misusing the high offices of the AHA.

JRoth - 1/6/2004

I guess I understand your point about not singling out Byrd for an award, but you're perpetuating the myth of the moral equivalence between Byrd & Thurmond. The fundamental flaw in this (very convenient to Republicans) myth is that Byrd has explicitly and repeatedly repudiated his racist past, while Thurmond never (repeat: never) did.

Ironically, I was led to the evidence through HNN: a Slate story from the time of the Thurmond/Lott controversy.

Byrd, 1993:
Q: What has been your biggest mistake and your biggest success?

A: Well, it's easy to state what has been my biggest mistake. The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I've said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts.

Thurmond, 1998 (50th anniversary of his Dixiecrat run):
"I don't have anything to apologize for," and "I don't have any regrets."

As for the nigger comment, it was a mistake for which he apologized, and when he was growing up, it simply wasn't a particularly derogatory term. That's a typical and weak defense, but a fundamentally true one. An 80 year old growing up south of the Mason Dixon using the word "nigger" is different from anyone born anywhere after WW2 using it. He's no hero on race, but no scoundrel either. And for the last 2 years, he's been one of the few senators willing to stand up for the dignity of the Senate as an independent institution, as opposed to lapdogs for Bush, and for that I'm thankful.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/5/2004

I suspect you're right about public civil pieties and Bill Frist. I caught the other day, with amazement, Howard Dean's admission that he left the Episcopal Church for the Congregationalist because his church opposed a public bike path. Talk about civil pieties!! I'm sure his decision had nothing to do with the fact that Congregationalists are are plentiful upon the ground in New England than Episcopalians.

I was baptized in the Church of the United Brethren, which suffered a friendly takeover from the United Methodist Church. My college chaplain was a Methodist who happily declared that the great thing about being a Methodist is that you really don't have to believe anything. I've since made the journey "backward" to the Episcopal Church. I think we are supposed to believe that marriage is a sacrament, but I was on pain medication during my catechetical instruction, so I can't say for sure. I hope I don't burn.

Van L. Hayhow - 1/4/2004

Yes, the issue is Byrd and the AHA, but if you are going to give Byrd an award, it may as well be named, in part, after Wilson who, if I recall correctly segregated the federal civil service.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/4/2004

I don't know of a decent church trial among the Presbyterians since that of Harry Emerson Fosdick. He, at least, was aware of his own deviations from historic Calvinism. I suspect that, for Frist, the public civil pieties are simply more important than church doctrine. Both Bush and Cheney are my fellow United Methodists, but I wouldn't want to hear what they think are the acknowledged sources of doctrine for us.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/4/2004

Should we recommend him for church discipline, Ralph?

Ralph E. Luker - 1/4/2004

I think the operative word in your first sentence is "relatively." His and Taft's administrations were fast backing down on civil service appointments for African Americans in the South and read my lips: Brownsville. Yet, the issue here isn't Wilson or Roosevelt. It is BYRD and the AHA.

John Thacker - 1/4/2004

Teddy Roosevelt might not have been "ready for the 21st century," but he was relatively anti-racist for his time, for example famously inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, in sharp contrast to Woodrow Wilson, who was excessively racist for their shared time period. If we concede that there's some merit in judging people by the standard of their time, then there's a clear difference between Roosevelt and Wilson.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/4/2004

Neither Wilson nor Roosevelt had racial attitudes ready for the 21st century. Neither does Byrd. The AHA manages to celebrate all three at once.

Bill Rudersdorf - 1/4/2004

It's worth mentioning that Woodrow Wilson himself was hardly disapproving of the Klan. There is a surviving filmed interview with him praising Birth of a Nation, a movie which was partly responsible for the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s. No blame on Teddy, though...