Ninety-Six Hours from Democracy
The smell of smoldering property fills the air as the orange glow of the arsonist's torch illumines the way from one town to the next. The night was November 15, 1864. The US, in the midst of a civil war and reeling from a very contentious election, was in a state of great division. Motivated by his desire to instill fear in their hearts, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman led more than 60,000 troops along a 1,000-mile route through the South, destroying property and pillaging villages.
Through this psychological warfare, Sherman believed that he could scare Southerners out of their support for the Confederate cause, thus shifting the war for the Union. In a letter to Gen. Henry Hallack, who was back in Washington, Sherman wrote concerning his plan,
I would not coax them, or meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.
By April of 1865, the Confederates were reaching their wit's end and sought for an expedited end to the war. Meeting with Jefferson Davis in Goldsboro North Carolina, Joseph E. Johnson is quoted as having said,
Our people are tired of the war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight. Our country is overrun, its military resources greatly diminished, while the enemy's military power and resources were never greater and may be increased to any extent desired. ...My small force is melting away like snow before the sun.
The indiscriminate psychological warfare of Sherman had succeeded. He was not the first to use such oppressive tactics, nor would he be the last.
On the eve of Benjamin Harrison's election in 1888, the voices of Black Americans sang out.
When Israel was in Egypt's land:
Let my people go,
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand,
Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
The underground railroad had steamed through the South rescuing more than 100,000 slaves, bringing them north to free states and Canada. The Emancipation Proclamation had made the practice of slavery illegal, but many Southern Whites remained angry and desired strongly to maintain their hold over Blacks, even as the government sought to end the vile practice of slavery and person ownership.
With a majority in both houses of Congress, President Harrison attempted to pass legislation aimed at protecting the rights of Black Americans. Harrison's Attorney General, William H. H. Miller, ordered prosecutions of those who violated voting rights in the South. However, Slave owners, using their privileged social positions failed to convict White defendants found guilty of voting rights violations throughout the South.
December 3, 1887, President Harrison stood before both houses of Congress and passionately stated,
The colored people did not intrude themselves upon us; they were brought here in chains and held in communities where they are now chiefly bound by a cruel slave code...when and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? ... in many parts of our country where the colored population is large, The people of that race are by various devices deprived of any effective exercise of their political rights and of many of their civil rights. The wrong does not expend itself upon those whose votes are suppressed. Every constituency in the Union is wronged.
Still, this passionate speech did nothing to curve the injustices against Black Americans in the South. Instead, many Southern Whites, desiring to maintain their elite status, normalized the practice of lynching. Between the years 1887 and 1906, a Black Southerner would die by lynching at a rate of one every ninety-six hours. A kind of psychological warfare had again returned to the South. Every ninety-six hours another Black American would die at the hands of a lynch mob. Undoubtedly the prospect of a lynch mob instilled great fear in the lives of Black Southerners. Author Richard Wright, born in SW Mississippi, witnessed the lynching of two men. He wrote,
The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.
Again, the psychological warfare of fear, this time aimed at Black Southerners, had succeeded.
February 19, 1942, just two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones. The order read,
Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities. By virtue of the authority vested in me as the President of the United States... I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War... to prescribe military areas in such place and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.
As a result, approximately 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were evicted from the US West Coast and held in "internment" camps established in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
After the establishment of these camps, American's were forced to evacuate their home, leave their jobs and in some cases separate from their family members. These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to four years, without due process of law in what President Roosevelt himself called "concentration camps."
Told to report to their local Christian church where buses were waiting to carry them away, Joyce Okazaki was just seven years old when her family left their home in Los Angeles. 75 years later in an article for Reuters, she recalls the fear that became a pervasive part of her everyday life. She says,
We were constantly under threat if we went hear the barbed wire fences. With barbed-wire fences and guard towers and sentries with rifles manning them, you became scared.
Yet, even after the war had ended and these Japanese Americans were released, those who returned home found that their good had been stolen and many of their properties had been sold without a deed.
Once again, a psychological fear had griped the American consciousness leading to the mass genocide and degradation of an entire people group within our own populous. In our fear, we had become like the German Reich we were fighting against overseas.
January 30, 2018. 154 years after General Sherman marched on the South, his army cutting through my hometown, I am struck by our lack of progress against an inbred fear used as a kind of psychological warfare. Tonight, President Donald J. Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address to a divided and frighted America.
While your individual fear might be dependent on your race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religious creed; we all share in this deeply rooted warfare of fear. How can we, a country founded on the principles of freedom from tyranny, still seek to impose tyranny on our fellow Americans?
How is it 242 years after our founding, we are still 96 hours from democracy?
96 hours from equality.
96 hours from justice.
96 hours from freedom.
96 hours from democracy.
As I look for reason to hope and motivation to bring us even one minute closer to democracy, I am reminded of an open letter written by James Baldwin to Miss Angela Davis.
An Open Letter to My Sister Miss Angela Davis
We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.
The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.