"Your father isn't here to pay. My father isn't here to collect. But I'm here to collect and you're here to pay."
-- Malcolm X, Nov. 23, 1964
In the Mississippi Delta, on Old U.S. 61 between the coastal casinos and Elvis' Graceland, there's a once-lovely swimming pool, now with peeling blue paint and cracked concrete. It wasn't just any swimming pool; no indeed. It was the first public swimming pool for blacks in Colonel Reb's state.
More important was the town around the pool, Mound Bayou, which a half-century ago boasted two hospitals, thriving businesses, 4,000 residents and 30,000 acres of communally owned farmland. Now it's just this side of being deserted.
About 45 miles east of Mound Bayou is Money, a hamlet that to all appearances has pathetically little of its namesake. On the main -- the only -- drag through the town, there's a roof-caved-in ruin of Bryant's Grocery and Meats. It was here in September 1955 that the store owner's wife, Carolyn Bryant, claimed that a 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, whistled at her. During a period when the South was ruled by terrorists every bit as lethal and evil as al-Qaeda, Till's punishment was commonplace: gruesome torture and murder.
In the South's fabric -- a tawdry garment whose blemishes are clumsily camouflaged in deceitful new threads -- Mound Bayou and Money are intricately linked to Atlanta. And to Wilmington, N.C., Rosewood, Fla., Philadelphia, Miss., and many other places. And the South's distinguishing color, the red of spilled blood, often spreads beyond the Mason-Dixon line -- to the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Okla., for example.
A common story line runs through the repeated acts of terrorism: The myth of lecherous black men preying on white damsels was gasoline on the fire of hatred. Newspapers often lit the match. The Wilmington (N.C.) Messenger and Evening Dispatch in 1898 warned of black "insolents" and "brutes" assaulting white women. The Atlanta Constitution, eight years later, screamed: "Another Girl Assaulted." Rosewood, a prosperous community less than an hour's drive from where the Florida Gators now score touchdowns, was torched in 1923, many of its citizens murdered, after a white woman claimed a black man raped her. In Tulsa, as many as 300 died following rumors that a shoeshine boy had attacked a young woman elevator operator.
Towns such as Mound Bayou escaped the holocaust of fire and noose, but most of its population fled north to escape the hooded defenders of white supremacy. Elsewhere, the reign of terror targeted churches, civil rights activists and, frequently, good folks guilty of merely being black in the first degree. Almost 3,500 blacks and 1,500 whites were lynched during the Jim Crow decades.
If you think what was happening in the South -- and what still does happen in places such as east Texas -- was merely a particularly virulent form of racism, you'd be very wrong. Behind the well-worn fables leading up to a lynching -- black men leering at/whistling at/raping oh-so-innocent white women -- there was a very definite plan.
Until the Civil War, blacks had been kidnapped from their homes, their labor then stolen from them for 15 generations. After Reconstruction, a financially destitute South embarked on a program to systematically deprive blacks of their wealth. Even William Tecumseh Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 promising of 40 acres and a mule was rescinded shortly after Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
Essential to squeezing the wealth from blacks was denying them access to politics. Race riots in Atlanta and Wilmington were fired by salacious rumors -- but the real purpose was black disenfranchisement.
In short, it was always about economics. And economics is always twinned with politics. White society condoned the discrimination. Institutions -- government and business -- fostered racist stereotypes and many were complicit in the violence. Distortions rooted in romantic stereotypes still permeate society. For example, in the last five years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has mentioned a real event, the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 16 times, while it has invoked the Gone With the Wind myth 568 times.
The damage is hard to measure. Losses suffered by blacks from 1929 until today could be as high as $24 trillion, says University of Florida research sociologist Joe Feagin.
How did it work? Higher prices charged blacks for everything from mortgages to milk, redlining by banks, lower wages for the same work. As detailed in 2001 by Atlanta writer Doug Blackmon in the Wall Street Journal, the use of mostly black, leased convict labor -- men jailed often on nonsense offenses -- ensured profits for corporations, cash flows for local governments and no worries about blacks becoming rich and uppity.
The Dixiecrats and then the Republicans conspired to thwart black access to the voting booth. From poll taxes and literacy tests to purge lists of black voters in Florida's 2000 election and racist voter ID laws in Georgia, the strategy is always the same: Keep them powerless in order to keep them poor.
The right's echo chamber clamors about individual responsibility and choices. Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, George Bush and Ann Coulter are where they are because of their own work. It's a Big Lie. One can be white, a mediocre student and a failure at every business attempt -- just look at George W. Bush -- and still succeed. Meanwhile, how much black genius has died in multigenerational poverty enforced by discrimination? It isn't a stretch to say that much of the white wealth in America is equity taken from blacks.
It's time to convene a racial reconciliation project to redress the dollar loss to the black population -- not because of slavery, but because of discrimination in our own and our parents' lifetimes.
· Join in remembering the Atlanta Race Riot. Click here for a list of events this month.
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