Power Of Being Racially United
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Politics and Activism

Power Of Being Racially United

How multi-racial coalitions did the impossible.

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Power Of Being Racially United
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"Whenever the Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it... He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together... that's the beginning of getting out of slavery."

These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "I've Been on the Mountaintop" speech, the day before he died. The speech is often cited by Dr. King's dark prophetic foreshadowing of his own death. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

But what's forgotten and glossed over in many instances is King's mission and movement at this point of his life. While providing pivotal momentum for black sanitation workers in the Memphis sanitation strike, Dr. King and the SCLC spearheaded the Poor People's Campaign, which pushed for economic equality for all races of Americans. The campaign intended to march on Washington, gathering supporters from all a wide variety of racial and regional backgrounds.

Without a doubt, the Johnson administration was fearful of the Poor People's Campaign. According to historian Gerald McKnight in "Last Crusade," "The Johnson administration reacted as though the campaigners were an invading horde from a strange land intent on the violent disruption of the government..."

While the movement lost momentum after Dr. King's death, the Vietnam War, and Robert Kennedy's untimely death, we can learn a valuable lesson from Dr. King's words cited at the beginning of the article and Johnson's reaction: united, multi-racial groups of poor people are very dangerous for a ruling elite.

In 1676, a 500 person coalition of poor whites and blacks, many indentured servants and slaves, led by Nathaniel Bacon burned down and unseated the then largest English settlement in the United States (Jamestown). In other words, they did the improbable and shocked the world doing so. Today, we know this as Bacon's Rebellion.

While Bacon's Rebellion is heavily controversial for its treatment of Native Americans and downright massacre of a group of Native Americans, white indentured servants and black slaves made up much of the group that nearly changed the face of American politics. Historian and theologian Thandeka contends that seeing this unity frightened the slave-owning Virginia elite, and instigated the elevation of lower-class whites and consequent racism against blacks.

It's important to note that the economic status of indentured servants and black slaves were very similar at the time. According to Michelle Alexander in "The New Jim Crow," plantation owners in the South needed alternative sources of free labor because already present Native Americans couldn't be forced into labor -- they could fight back. Indentured servants and slaves in effect, were the victims of plantation owner targets, and both suffered from horrible labor conditions and extreme poverty as a result.

Before Bacon's Rebellion, both were on the same playing field. Both had much in common, and their role in the rebellion showed that united, they were a dangerous group for the ruling planter class.

Thus, Thandeka points to Bacon's Rebellion's fallout as a main reason behind the expansion of slavery and racism in America. After seeing the devastating power of poor blacks and poor whites united, they gradually used race to divide the two groups to cement their own power as the elite.

In 1705, conditions were heavily improved for white indentured servants: they were provided with corn, clothing, a gun, and land at the end of their service, their poll tax was decreased, and they were no longer allowed to be whipped naked. Conditions for slaves, on the other hand, saw no improvement.

As the conditions improved, this white working class saw its status slightly elevated and began to identify more and more with the planter class, and the gap in status between white indentured servants and black slaves widened. Psychologically, the white freedmen ever so slightly began identifying themselves more with the planters than slaves.

That was exactly the way the planter elites wanted it: to re-write the narrative based on race rather than class, to fool the white working class into believing they had their best interests in mind, and ultimately to racially divide the two groups so severely that they could no longer unite against them. "Racial contempt would function as a wall between poor whites and blacks, protecting masters and their slave-produced wealthy from both lower-class whites and slaves."

We see this pattern again recently in the 2014 Mississippi Senate race, particularly between in the Republican primary between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniels. Cochran had been the incumbent establishment Republican Senator since 1976, running for his seventh term in the Senate. Challenger Chris McDaniel was a State Senator who was a member of the Tea Party.

Although ugly and scandal-ridden, the primary was very close, with McDaniel winning 49.5 percent of the popular vote and Cochran winning 49 percent. Since neither won a majority there was a run-off election between the two to decide the Republican nominee.

Cochran would win the nomination with 51 percent of the runoff vote compared to McDaniel's 49 percent. That's where it got even more ugly: Cochran supporters were accused of playing the "race card" in racially inflammatory ads against McDaniel to get black democratic voters to win Cochran the primary.

Since Mississippi primaries are open to anyone that did not vote in the Democratic primary, this alleged tactic by Cochran supporters was highly favorable, especially in a runoff McDaniel was heavily favored to win.

One ad said "The Tea Party Intends to Stop You From Voting", encouraging all voters to vote in the Republican runoff. In a "All Citizens for Mississippi" radio ad against McDaniel, it was said that "A victory for Chris McDaniel is a loss for... race relationships between blacks, whites, and other ethnic groups."

According to 538, the tactic worked: African-Americans did help Cochran win the runoff. His vote total increased the most (from the first round) where African-Americans made up 69 percent or more of the local population. Since over 90% of African-Americans routinely vote democrat in Mississippi, it can be assumed that black democrats helped sway the runoff election. In this case, a coalition of black and white voters swayed an election to favor of a heavily unlikely candidate.

Although intended for selfish and ambitious aims, both Bacon's Rebellion and the primary between Cochran and McDaniel show one thing: a united group of multiple racial groups is powerful enough to secure an impossible result.

Who knows? Maybe one controversial presidential candidate can learn this lesson and shock America.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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