In 1903, James K. Vardaman was elected as the Populist governor of Mississippi in the Great Revolt of the Rednecks. As was the case with “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman in South Carolina, the “Great White Chief” James K. Vardaman brought a new tone to Mississippi politics.
Some people believe there is no nuance to “racism” and “white supremacy.” I invite anyone to compare the “racism” of Jefferson Davis to his successor James K. Vardaman in Mississippi or the “racism” of John C. Calhoun to his successor Ben Tillman in South Carolina. It is worth reflecting on how both evolved between the wealthier, more confident slave South of the moonlight and magnolias legend of the 1850s and the poorer, more resentful and free South of the 1900s when the price of cotton was 4.9 cents.
“The race question is one of the most serious problems which confront the civilization of the present century. The entire republic is interested in it; but the South, where the nigger lives in such large numbers, is of course more widely affected and therefore more materially and vitally interested. The election in Maryland, and the interest manifested by the people of the whole republic, bids me hope that a way may be discovered whereby destructive attrition will be avoided—for many years at least. The first thing to be done to bring about the beginning of the process which works matters to a satisfactory issue is to bring our statesmen, philanthropists, sociologists, conservative business men, and misinformed preachers to a sane consideration of the real, inbred, God-planted, and time fixed moral and mental qualities of the nigger.
In the solution of this problem we must recognize in the very outset what Thomas Jefferson recognized a hundred years ago and what Abraham Lincoln indorsed fifty years later, that the nigger cannot live in the same country with the white man on terms of social or political equality. It is one of the impossible things. One of the other of the races will rule. They will not mix. Another thing must be done—the truth must be told about these matters and the nigger given to understand just what is expected of him and what will be done for him. I am very much in favor of protecting the nigger in the pursuit of happiness and the full enjoyment of the products of his labor. I believe in being honest in all business dealing with him as I believe in being candid in the discussion of his political and civil rights.
I am opposed to the nigger’s voting, it matters not what his advertised moral and mental qualifications may be. I am just as much opposed to Booker Washington as I am to voting by the cocoanut-headed, chocolate colored typical little coon, Andy Dotson, who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither one is fit to perform the supreme functions of citizenship. Some people may say that that is prejudice. It may be. But it is a wise prejudice founded upon the experience of all the ages. Did you ever think what we are indebted to this prejudice for? It is to this prejudice we are indebted for the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race—the master race of the world. We are indebted to it for the literature of the English-speaking people, for all the great discoveries in science, for the incomparable original plan of the government under which we live—in a word, all the glories which crown and glorify the civilization of the twentieth century. But it matters little what I may think or others may say, that prejudice will live as long as the Anglo-Saxon race retains its virility, its genius for government, and its unconquerable will to rule. When it shall cease to exist, then, indeed, will the scepter of world-rulership pass to other hands, and the glorious achievements of the “heir of all the ages” shall crumble and fall, and over it all will drift the Sahara sands of oblivion. The absolute domination by the white race means race purity. It means order, good government, progress, and general prosperity both for the nigger and white man. But when the nigger is taken into partnership in the government of the country, demoralization, retrogression, and decay ensue—just as surely as the night follows the day
I want to do what is best for both races. I am the nigger’s best friend. But I am friendly to him as a nigger whom I expect to live, act, and die as a nigger. A great deal of money, more than $250,000,000, has been spent since the years 1861-65 by the white people of the North and the South in a foolish endeavor to make more of the nigger than God Almighty every intended. How well these efforts have succeeded, this extract from an address by a Northern man attests. I want to call attention to the fact that these statistics are entirely free from the suspicion of “race prejudice,” for they were collected by Professor Wilcox, of Cornell University, a native of Massachusetts, and Dr. Winston, president of the North Carolina Agricultural College. These are the conclusions.
The negro element is the most criminal in our population.
The negro is much more criminal as a free man than he was as a slave.
The negro is increasing in criminality with fearful rapidity being one-third more criminal in 1890 than 1880.
The negroes who can read and write are more criminal than the illiterate, which is true of no other element of our population.
The negro is nearly three times as criminal in the Northeast, where he has not been a slave for a hundred years, and three and a half times as criminal in the Northwest, where he has never been a slave, as in the South, where he was a slave until 1865.
The negro is three times as criminal as a native white, and once and a half as criminal as the foreign white, consisting in many cases of the scum of Europe.
More than seven-tenths of the negro criminals are under thirty years of age.
But Dr. Wilcox is not the only man who has demonstrated the fallacy of the contention of the superficial student who sees in the school-house and booklearning the panacea for the ills which render the nigger unfit to perform any other function in the economy of the world than that of a servant or menial. Read this clipping from the New Orleans Times-Democrat:
“These conclusions are sustained by an article by Professor J. R. Stratton printed in the North American Review for June 1900. Professor Stratton points out that, according to the census of 1890, the minimum illiteracy of the negro is found in New England, where it is 21.7 per cent.; and the maximum illiteracy of the negro is to be found in the so-called ’black belt’ of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama, where it is 65.7 per cent. And yet the negro is four and a half times more criminal in New England, hundred for hundred of the population, than he is in the ’black belt.’ You cannot deny or question the correctness of the conclusions reached by these gentlemen. They are irrefragable and stand a Gibraltar against the waves of ignorance, fanaticism, sectional hatred, and Rooseveltian stupidity. We squander money on their education and make criminals of what should be efficient laborers.”
It is a grave question and should be handled with consummate skill. The services of the wise, fearless, and patriotic statesman are demanded. We must be just to the nigger, and we must at the same time be true to the white man and true to the civilization of the age. A long way toward the solution of this question would be effected by repealing the amendments to the Federal Constitution which gave the nigger the right to pollute politics. Congress should submit that question to the people, or rather to the States. A mistake was made and it should be corrected. It is urged by some men that it is “too early to discuss that matter.” I do not think it is ever too early to tell the truth, correct a mistake, or explode a lie. The people of some of the Southern States have already in effect repealed those amendments. They have eliminated the nigger from politics, and I think and hope they will be able to keep him eliminated; but I prefer doing it in a different way. It would be infinitely better botch for the nigger and the white man if it could be done.
I do not know what will be done along the line we have been discussing by the Legislature of Mississippi. I should like to see Section 206 of the State constitution so amended as to put the public schools entirely in the hands of the Legislature. I am exceedingly desirous of improving the educational facilities of our rural white population. I want the white country boys and girls who are to rule Mississippi in the future equipped, in so far as the school can equip them, for the services, serious duties, and responsibilities which must soon devolve upon them. The hope of the republic, the Ark of the Covenant of American ideals, is in the keeping of the great common people, more especially those who live in the rural districts. In these days of sordid materialism and greed for gain, when the dollar has almost become the god, it is pleasant to contemplate the superb qualities of
“The old-fashioned people—The hale, hard-working people,
The kindly country people,
’At uncle used to know.”
Note: If you believe in the myth of the inevitable march toward racial equality, you should check out Philip A. Klinker and Rogers M. Smith’s book The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America which argues great power rivalries have driven race relations. We’ve gone through three periods of war-induced racial egalitarianism followed by longer periods of retrenchment – the American Revolution, the War Between the States and World War II/Cold War.