As I mentioned before, I'm reading Randall Kennedy's book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency for a magazine piece. The most moving chapter in the book is on black patriotism. Most of the chapter finds Kennedy offering a rather sympathetic, and compelling, look at Reverend Jeremiah Wright through the lens of his father.
But there's also an intense section where Kennedy describes black soldiers efforts at The Battle of The Bulge. Eisenhower had lost so many troops that he gives black soldiers the opportunity to volunteer to fight. Even though it means taking demotions so that black officers wouldn't end up commanding white soldiers, four thousand black men sign on.
In the years following the armed forces began to desegregate. In the wake of those changes, the following letter was sent to Theodore Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist and senator from Mississippi:
I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
The letter was written by a man who served, not in the American military, but in the white supremacist militia and rose to be a "Exalted Cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. In another life the longest serving senator in American history, and supporter of the country's first black president. The man was Robert Byrd.
One of the problems with history as debate club is Byrd's name is typically bandied about in order change the subject away from the latest racist act by some GOP official. This offers a convenient excuse to not look, in any depth, at Byrd's past actions.
I don't pull out that quote to play "Who is more racist?" But it must be said that there is stunning amount of hatred in those words. It can't be explained away by politics. This isn't the public "I'll never be outniggered again" race-baiting of Wallace. And it's much more than just hatred of black people; it's hatred of an America in which black people are allowed to fight with whites, voiced by someone who did no fighting himself.
Byrd's sentiment isn't original, It really is the same fear that led to secession. But it basically holds that one hates black people so much, that they would see their mother country fall, so long as black people stay fallen.
Perhaps inappropriately, I'm reminded of a scene in one of those many X-Men crossovers from the 80s. Jean Grey is locked in battle with her clone, her "sister," Madelyne Pryor. As they fight to the death Jean tells her she can still save her and they truly can learn to live in the world together that there still is a world to live for. Pryor says "Not with you in it" and dies.
That's the kind of hatred you see in that letter. And it wasn't even unusual. Kennedy chronicles how blacks in the South, up through the 1950s, often didn't celebrate the 4th of July less they be lynched for believing themselves American.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power