“The Planter” and Poor Whites – Habituated to Harm

The photo that illustrates this post is of a lynching in Excelsior Springs, Missouri in 1925, ten years before Du Bois’ published Black Reconstruction in America. I think it’s important to see these pictures of the crowds of white people who must be, I suppose, enjoying their presence there while feeling justified at their actions. But I have cropped it so as not to show Mitchell Miller, the black man who was hanged by a mob of about five hundred. I’m sure I can offer you a reason, but instead I’ll just say it feels very wrong as “image proliferation.” This is an image held by Getty Images and as such costs money to use ($175 for the smallest image). This is another thing I think is wrong. If there is one thing I think people should want a government to do it would be to archive these and ensure perpetuation without cost. The idea of “use” is always a problem of definition (and those defining) and the fact that I can download this image from Google (meaning Google is using it and I’m sure not paying Getty for it) complicates it further. Of course, maintaining image integrity is impossible in our current age (having cropped this photo I am certainly aware of this) but if we are to think there are facts we might discover about the human past we do need to trust institutions in this endeavor.

But to the reason I began this post.

Du Bois closes chapter three, “The Planter,” with what seem to me a series of psychological insights that still describe the racism and degraded thinking in the country.

“The Southern planter suffered, not simply for his economic mistakes—the psychological effect of slavery upon him was fatal. The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets; they issued commands; they made laws; they shouted their orders; they expected deference and self-abasement; they were choleric and easily insulted. Their “honor” became a vast and awful thing, requiring wide and insistent deference. Such of them as were inherently weak and inefficient were all the more easily angered, jealous and resentful; while the few who were superior, physically or mentally, conceived no bounds to their power and personal prestige.”

***

“With the Civil War, the planters died as a class. We still talk as though the dominant social class in the South persisted after the war. But it did not. It disappeared. Just how quickly and in what manner the transformation was made, we do not know. No scientific study of the submergence of the remainder of the planter class into the ranks of the poor whites, and the corresponding rise of a portion of the poor whites into the dominant portion of landholders and capitalists, has been made. Of the names of prominent Southern families in Congress in 1860, only two appear in 1870, five in 1880. Of 90 prominent names in 1870, only four survived in 1880. Men talk today as though the upper class in the white South is descended from the slaveholders; yet we know by plain mathematics that the ancestors of most of the present Southerners never owned a slave nor had any real economic part in slavery. The disaster of war decimated the planters; the bitter disappointment and frustration led to a tremendous mortality after the war, and from 1870 on the planter class merged their blood so completely with the rising poor whites that they disappeared as a separate aristocracy. It is this that explains so many characteristics of the post-war South: its lynching and mob law, its murders and cruelty, its insensibility to the finer things of civilization.

***

Du Bois stresses that the economic form of Slavery in the South required people (5 million poor white people and 4 million enslaved black people) remaining ignorant along with a suppression of new technologies, seeding its demise by suicide in the American Civil War. When the small number of the “so-called” aristocracy disappeared so did any, again, so-called “culture” (Europe-worship).

Humanity’s apathy explained:

“The Southerners were as little conscious of the hurt they were inflicting on human beings as the Northerners were of their treatment of the insane. It is easy for men to discount and misunderstand the suffering or harm done others. Once accustomed to poverty, to the sight of toil and degradation, it easily seems normal and natural; once it is hidden beneath a different color of skin, a different stature or a different habit of action and speech, and all
consciousness of inflicting ill disappears.”

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