Ferguson, Missouri

I made  a conscious decision not to write about the quagmire developing in Ferguson, Missouri. If doubting my capacity to add fresh insight wasn’t enough,  fearing a distinct possibility of outrage becoming rant sealed the deal. At that moment a ponder formed.

Abolition of slavery was an inconvenience to Southern plantation owners, share cropping was the answer. Slice plantations into tiny pieces, assign plots with wooden shacks, provide each “farmer” with seed and tools, have them work your land, take half the profits, then deduct the cost of housing, seed and tools. Pass laws requiring poll taxes and literacy tests to qualify as voters – voila, it was all a bad dream – business as usual. The south depended on two things – labor and levees.

April of 1926, the Army Corps of Engineers announced levees from Illinois to New Orleans were unbreachable. – that fall it started to rain. By January of 1927 water has topped “flood stage” at Cairo, Illinois – undaunted the Mississippi River Commission sides with the Corps. In March relentless storm water arrives at the Mississippi Delta , a delta inundated and overwhelmed by unimaginable rainstorms. Fearing a breach, residents of Greenville South Carolina start to evacuate. Skittish land owners , terrified share crop labor forces might follow – round up African Americans at gunpoint, forcing them into work camps along the levee. On April 15 Greenville receives over 8 inches of rain.

The next day, south of Cairo Illinois a section of levee fails – 175,000 acres are flooded. At Greenville 30,000 African American “prisoners’ fill sand bags around the clock – guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting escape. April 21 the levee breaks. Within hours the river is almost 100 miles wide, those not swept away cling to rooftops. Greenville is under 10 feet of water. Prominent land owner LeRoy Percy appoints his son Will to head the Flood Relief Committee.

Will orchestrates a relief effort – plucking thousands from trees and roof-tops, taking them to a “crown” of levee still intact.  April 25 finds 13,000 blacks stranded on a strip of land – no food, water or shelter. Will organizes another rescue – boats charged with taking survivors to safety arrive at Greenville. He didn’t realize plantation owners – including his father – couldn’t risk losing their labor. Only 33 white women and children were allowed to leave.

Will convinces the Red Cross to set up a relief center in Greenville.  When provisions arrive they go to white residents first, anything left went to blacks provided they had a tag around their neck marked “laborer”.  Stories of horrific abuse by National Guard troops – theft, rape, beating and murders of African Americans start finding their way to northern news desks. Enter Herbert Hoover.

President Calvin Coolidge appoints presidential wannabe Hoover to investigate allegations of abuse. Hoover forms the Colored Advisory Committee, comprised of African Americans, led by Robert Moton.  Seizing an opportunity, Hoover convinces Moton to silence Committee findings verifying atrocities against blacks on the levees. In exchange Hoover assures Moton that if he is elected his priority will be advancement of African Americans and agricultural land reform. African American votes help elect Hoover –  Hoover had no intention of helping African Americans.

I wonder how many Americans learned this history at school, my guess is very few. Click on the link for a detailed timeline from American Experience. Finally, ponder why this is my response to Ferguson Missouri.


12 thoughts on “Ferguson, Missouri

  1. I’m not sure very many people in ANY culture learn all the atrocities that occur in their own country. And in contemporary schools I’m not sure how much ANYONE learns about anything. Hearing the debates about textbooks that were going on just before we went mobile I was appalled at how little is taught to anyone anymore. And certainly in a world where technology more than 5 minutes old is already obsolete I’m not sure how much anyone under the age of 20, or maybe even 30 actually cares about history. When I hear stories of looting and rampaging in Ferguson it seems to me that there is protesting going on, but that there is also a lot of opportunistic mayhem going on as well.
    Truthfully, did I learn about Ferguson? No. But Ferguson is 400 miles away from where I grew up. But I did learn about the Bay View Massacre in which National Guardsmen fired on and killed striking Rolling Mill workers — which occurred right in my own backyard. My point being that it’s easy to criticize the U.S. for things that are done openly and reported about openly — that’s the cost of having a relatively open society. We are free to be criticized, free to be scoffed, free to be ridiculed.
    I’m not sure that if push came to shove the history of how First Nation people’s were treated in the U.S. and Canada are all that different. Certainly, you never experienced a national slavery issue but I don’t think any nation has a monopoly on stupid behavior, reprehensible-by-2014-standards behavior, or bigotry, bias, or discrimination. The Brits have their India, the French have their Muslims, the Chinese… well, it goes on and on.
    And developed countries are great for criticizing developing countries for doing what they themselves did at a similar time in the developed country’s growth. Face it, Human Nature is Human Nature. We can claim a shroud of civilization but the fact of the matter is that when pressed people will act in their own interest first, and depending upon the degree of their power they aren’t beyond subjugating others to do so. Surely, the pyramids were constructed by willing workmen, or the Mayan temples, etc., etc., etc..

    Sure, it’s a shame what happened in Ferguson — but anyone who thinks it’s the only time, or the only place, or that we are the only country in the world where such things are and have happened is being foolish. And on some level poking fun at it is no different than the selective broadcast of politically censored news that is also easy to poke at — because it’s doing the same thing.
    I like a lot of your ponders but I guess at my age I’m not sure what is accomplished by taking potshots at people misbehaving. What I’d like to hear about, is how to change the behavior of both the individuals who over reacted in the first place, and those who are overreacting now in protest…. THAT is something I’d love to hear. But, sadly, I don’t know anyone who knows how to fix the aftermath of 100’s of years of bad behavior in an instant. And I fear we will live with atrocity and over reaction for a good deal longer. Even revolution will not fix that — for revolution will only flip to the opposite extreme as has happened time and time again.

    • I completely agree with you. It wasn’t my intention to “take potshots”, far from it. I was attempting in a round about way to ask people to “ponder” history (not just American history, though in hindsight I didn’t make that clear) No nation, race, religion is free from atrocity – we’re all a nasty bunch when you get right down to it. That said, I believe it’s important to understand where animosity came from.Looking history in the eye can’t always be pretty, what it can do is broaden our grasp of knee jerk reaction.

      When I post something like this, my hope is that others will gain a little perspective. What you see as potshot, I see as history relevant to the situation. I think you know me well enough by now to understand I care deeply about injustice. Injustice in Canada, America, Europe, China, India – this time it happened to be America.

      I don’t delight in slinging mud. I didn’t make this up, embellish the facts or toss in unsubstantiated narrative.If we can’t learn from our history – the world is in worse shape than I imagined 🙂

      • Ponder — I don’t think I was really complaining about you. There seems to be a lot of more atrocious potshot taking here in the U.S. under the guise of enlightenment and advocating revolution. And I don’t think I will ever forget the words of one of the Russian generals immediately following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. who said (in translation) that when there is no bread on the shelves no one will complain that it is the tanks of the former USSR driven by the military that bring food and stability back to a destabilized culture.

        You often comment in much the same ‘way’ as I — I talk about things that I’m really not complaining about — it’s just my way of verbally walking through the current landscape of my life. We have a lot to learn about how to behave (as humans).

        My real criticism was really aimed at the ability to recall one’s own history, if they were ever taught it. For people in Ferguson it’s much more likely that they may have some knowledge of their regional history, just as I have more knowledge about the area in which I live. And certainly I’d expect African Americans to be far more familiar with what their people suffered. I’m not sure how often the oppressor class is EVER really ‘familiar’ with the atrocities they inflict on others. Isn’t that the same reason that soldiers always dehumanize the ‘enemy’ — it’s easier to kill when the object in your sniperscope is less-than-human.

        Agreed on the worse shape…..

  2. A ponder formed, and I could not agree more ~ we need to learn from history, for as you say in the above comment “No nation, race, religion is free from atrocity – we’re all a nasty bunch when you get right down to it.” We all need to understand the past, the horrible thoughts/ideas/decisions of history, and then the most important thing: move forward. Moving forward means doing so positively, and with grace. Sometimes I marvel in horror at our inability to learn and to move forward positively. Nice post, you provide perspective.

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