All the Way to Memphis

Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest

In a majority black Southern city such as Memphis, statues celebrating Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate General/KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest are an affront.

Wait, let me correct that.

In any place on the planet, where decent people of any color recognize that Davis led a bloody insurrection to preserve slavery and Forrest led troops in that insurrection and then founded the Ku Klux Klan after losing, public statues celebrating them and other terrorists are an affront.

Naturally, most people in Memphis would like to see these statues removed from their public spaces because the monuments are not only profoundly dishonorable, but were also erected during the heyday of Jim Crow segregation as a pointed warning to African Americans to remain subservient.

But there’s a problem.  The Tennessee state government denied Memphis permission to remove these and other Confederate statues.

Now what in tarnation is going on here?  Why is a big, bad state government hundreds of miles away ordering a city to keep statues in a local park?  Not only is that petty beyond conceit, but it also makes you wonder whatever happened to all that Republican bluster and balllyhoo in favor of small government and against intrusive big government that interferes with local people deciding how to govern themselves.

How did we get to this?

It begins with the slogan “States’ Rights.”

Before The Civil War, pro-slavery Southerners advocated States’ Rights: the power of states to rule themselves with minimal federal interference.  Their motivations were immorality and greed, but their legal claim rested upon 10th Amendment, which reads:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

In layman’s terms it means the federal government can do whatever the constitution says it can do, but if the Constitution doesn’t say it can do something, then it can’t.  And all those unspecified powers are left to the states and/or “the people.”  This is sometimes referred to as the Reserve Clause, meaning the states and “the people” (ie, individuals and local governments) reserve any powers not specifically allocated to the federal government by the constitution.

Of course the Constitution specifically allowed the federal government to address certain aspects of slavery immediately, and the slave trade specifically beginning in 1808.  So the notion that the states did not have to honor federal edicts on slavery was nonsense.

No matter.  The Civil War settled that.  And by the late 19th century, States’ Rights was largely a dead issue.  It was not until the 1950s that it again became a growing concern.  Why then?  Because of Civil Rights.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision marked the beginning of substantial federal efforts to  dismantle Jim Crow segregation in the South and West (Brown was actually about a school district in Kansas).  Consequently, many white, Southern Democrats began screaming about States’ Rights as a justification for legalized segregation.  Local governments should be allowed to set their own rules on the issue and not be bullied by the federal government, they insisted.

Of course the Civil Rights Movement was eventually successful in overturning Jim Crow segregation.  Major legislation in 1965, 1965, and 1968 signaled its death knell.  But that success resulted in a fracturing of the Democratic Party and a the biggest reshuffling of American politics since 1936.

In the 20 years following Jim Crow’s demise, white Southern political defectors increasingly joined Republican Party.  Their turn against Democratic presidential nominees began in 1968, and by the 1990s Southern whites were reliably voting Republican in state and local elections as well.

As white Southerners migrated to the Republican Party, States’ Rights became a GOP issue.  By the 1980s, the States’ Rights plank was firmly fastened to the GOP platform with two nails: retrograde whites who used it as code for various racial and class resentments, and small government Conservatives who genuinely favored States’ Rights in the tradition of the 10th Amendment.

As early as 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater had begun to stabilize both ends of the States’ Right board.  And the issue’s simultaneous appeal to racists and genuine small government types was so seamless that both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan could twice use it to help lever themselves into the White House.  The planks of small government and States’ Rights became central architecture to the bridge that brought cultural and social Conservatives into a long lasting coalition with political and economic Conservatives.

And thus was the rallying cry of States’ Rights safely ensconced within the Republican Party.  Until now.

Power does funny things to people.  It can lead them to betray their values.  Or it can reveal the artificiality of values that are born of political convenience and expedience.

The Republicans have been firmly in power since the Reagan Revolution of 1980s.  Even when they have not been in power via electoral victory, they have continued to exert tremendous influence.  Over the last 40 years, Democrats have essentially ceded their Liberal stance on most economic issues, instead marking their territory through a handful of social and cultural issues such as reproductive rights and gun control.  All the while, Conservative economics schemes have reigned supreme, and the GOP absolutely dominates a large swath of Southern, Midwestern, and Western states.

Yet despite their successes, Republicans have recently betrayed their small government values and morphed into the party of intrusive, centralized government at the state level.

Specifically, Republican led state governments have passed numerous measures to restrict Democratic led local governments from setting their own policies.  At the state level, the GOP has become the party of Big Government, flexing its centralized muscle over municipalities and counties.  From to North Carolina to Michigan, Republican state governments have run roughshod over local governments, forbidding them to do things as mundane as allocate money for internet service or as serious as creating rules about landlord-tenant relations, establishing affordable-housing mandates, or passing higher minimum-wage laws.

In 2011, Wisconsin alone passed 128 measures limiting local government.

Apparently for Republicans, States’ Rights now means states have the right to neuter local government and replace it with big state government authority and bureaucracy.  Right down the level of telling a city government which statues it must have in a local park

But now the Democratically controlled city of Memphis had found a way around abusive intrusions by Republican controlled Tennessee.  The city sold the park to a private group called Memphis Greenspace.  As a private landowner, Memphis Greenspace doesn’t have to obey authoritarian edicts from the state of Tennessee about what statues it must keep on its property.  So it has gone ahead and removed the statues of Davis and Forrest.  And it is also maintaining the land and keeping it open to the public as a park.

For years now, the Republican party at the federal, state, and local levels has cast caution to the wind and done whatever it can to enforce its will upon people, even in jurisdictions where they are the minority, through top-down intervention.

Most polling indicates that a backlash is probably coming in the 2018 midterms and again in 2020 presidential election.  If so, the question is, will Democrats be content to simply undo the worst of it, or will they seek serious vengeance?

2 thoughts on “All the Way to Memphis

    1. Is your understanding of whiteness tied to slave-owning? If not, I’m really not sure how you could make such a claim. I’m anti-racism and anti-slavery, and so obviously I really don’t think much of ferocious racists and slave owners like Davis or Forrest. But on the other hand, I really like tons of whit people, like Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner and Aaron Judge and Thurman Munson and Ronnie Van Zant and Townes Vane Zandt (no relation of course) and George R.R. Martin and John Dewey and my sister to name just a few. I mean, none of them were/are by any means perfect, but they’re all generally on the right side of history so far as I can tell.

Let it Rip