Friday, June 22, 2007

Agitators and Race-Baiters: A Rhetorical History From Past To Present

Recently, the Wall Street Journal (with concurrence from Marty Peretz) compared the Duke Lacrosse Defendants to the Scottsboro boys. It's a vile and inaccurate comparison--one can recognize the injustice in the Duke case while noting the massive qualitative distinction between being released before trial and having your prosecutor disbarred, versus being sentenced to death twice and spending up to 20 years in prison before being released.

I spent much of last summer reading local news coverage of the Scottsboro Cases in the Montgomery Advertiser. I was curious to see how they dealt with the case, how they responded to the sentiment that the defendants were facing a "legal lynching" and the stunning rebuke the Supreme Court dealt when it reversed the death sentences and sent the cases back to trial.

Here's an editorial from the Advertiser responding the Court's ruling in the first Scottsboro case:
“But one significant fact stands out in this long and sordid story:

While Alabama has been blackguarded the round world over for the manner in which these men were tried and convicted, there was no conscious attempt on the part of any group of Alabamians to intimidate the Jackson county court that tried them, while intimidation of the crudest, more spectacular, and most obnoxious sort has been practiced by agitators who appointed themselves the special friends of these felons.”

“In the end insolent mobs marched in Washington with the sole purpose in mind of intimidating the highest court in the republic...

But no mobs marched in Alabama demanding the conviction of these men when they were put to trial.”

“But if there is any reasonable doubt in disinterested, responsible minds as to the fairness of the first trial, another will be granted cheerfully.

But Alabama stands conscience-clear and unashamed before the world!” [“The Supreme Court and the Scottsboro Case,” 11/8/32, (editorial), pg. 4]

It's worth noting that the paper is being somewhat disingenuous: there were mobs demanding the "conviction" of the defendants, and the paper reported them:
“Feeling as intense here last night as mountaineers from throughout the section came trooping into town…At times the crowd was estimated to number 300 and a few times there were shouts of ‘lynch them.’” [“Negroes Taken to Etowah Jail: Judge Orders Removal of Prisoners to Gadsen Under Military Escort,” MA, March 27, 1931 at pg. 1]

When the trial occurred, the paper also reported a crowd of 10,000 people gathered outside the courtroom but remained "orderly."

But what I want to focus on is the rhetoric in the editorial. Specifically, the word "agitators." "Agitators" is a word that seems to serve a very specific purpose in this article. It is designed to discredit the advocates of racial reformers just on face. In other coverage of the trial (including news pieces), the paper called the Scottsboro defendant's advocates "radicals" or "radical sympathizers."

To an extent, such wording strikes as quaint. But I think that it has some contemporary cousins whose potency might help illuminate what "agitators" and "radicals" did then. Imagine if a paper today wrote "terrorist sympathizers" and you have, I think, roughly the stimulus that "agitators" served in 1930s Alabama.

Yesterday, for my research this summer, I ran a Lexis search for "race-baiter." Here's some of what came up:
“Ex-producer for Imus calls Sharpton 'race-baiter',” Mobile Register (Alabama), May 12, 2007 Saturday, Pg. A08.

“LETTERS - Race baiters on both sides,” The Providence Journal (Rhode Island), April 15, 2007 Sunday, All Editions, EDITORIAL; Pg. D-07, 85 words. (“[Don Imus] should be punished further as a result of his whiny mea culpa at the feet of that race-baiting punk "the Rev. Al Sharpton," and the equally vile "Rev. Jesse Jackson," the worst spokesman of any ethnic group in history.”)

David Limbaugh, “Why Would Bush Adopt the Wild Rhetoric of the Race-Baiters?, “ Human Events Online, September 20, 2005 Tuesday 9:58 AM EST, , IN THE NEWS, 766 words (“The president said: "As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."I was more than a little disappointed when I heard him utter these words…. his injection of race into the speech is troubling if for no other reason than it gives ammunition and a degree of legitimacy to the race-hustlers' unconscionable ploy to blame delays or inadequacies in the federal response on the administration's alleged racial prejudice against blacks…. It is difficult to quantify the cumulative destructive impact of all the reckless, knee-jerk charges of white racism leveled by race-exploiters of both races who have something to gain by their accusations and by fanning the flames of racial tensions.”)

LIES OF THE RACE-BAITERS, The New York Post, December 19, 2006 Tuesday, All Editions; Pg. 42, (Noting that a majority of the officers implicated in the Sean Bell shooting were Black, “But the race-baiters never let facts get in the way of their trouble-making.”)

MEDIA, OTHERS ARE BUSY RACE-BAITING, Modesto Bee, September 8, 2005, Thursday, ALL EDITION, LOCAL NEWS; Pg. B7 (“Am I the only American who sees Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, CNN, MSNBC and some in the print media as race-baiters and a serious problem to our country?... When will the administration, members of Congress and responsible media call out these troublemakers and tell them simply they are creating racism where there is none? When will we, the consumers, speak out with our wallets and insist that this cabal of hate-promoters be ignored?)

In a subsequent post, I wish to explore the function such rhetoric serves by its wielders. I think the comparison of Duke to Scottsboro is instructive in this regard. But for now, I'm interested in how the current use of "race-baiter" strikes y'all when juxtaposed next to the past use of "agitator." Do you see a link? Does it distress you? Or are you completely confident that we have jettisoned that aspect of our past and our descriptions are fair and accurate?


Anonymous said...

There probably is such a link, and it is depressing. I don't think 'race-baiter' is as horrible or destructive a label as 'agitator' though, just based on what they're trying to appeal to.

The 'race-baiter' label aims at the fact that many white Americans just want racial issues and discussion to go away. Especially those who weren't alive during the segregation era don't like having racial problems pressed into their face, since they don't think it's 'their' fault. "Race-baiter" conjures up images of someone trying to refuel the fires of racial tension that, blissfully ignorant of the more subtle biases that still remain, us young whites think have nothing to do with us.

The 'agitator' label seems intended to conjure up images of actual armed resistance, rebellion, and anarchists; a much scarier prospect than being forced to revisit a past you'd rather forget.

Unknown said...

IS that first Advertiser quote not talking about the CPUSA? It seems like one could interpret the term 'agitators' as a generic anti-communist/radical signifier. If so the term does discredit the supports of the Scottsboro boys a priori but only insofar as everything the CPUSA did was discredited. Indeed, CPUSA members probably would have embraced the label.

Alternately, the paper might be exploiting anti-communism in an effort to discredit all defenders of the scottsboro boys by association.

Also, anyone know when newspapers adopted style rules prohibiting passive voice?

David Schraub said...

In a previous article, the paper referred to the NAACP, ACLU, and International Labor Defense as "radical groups." The latter was a communist arm, the middle had ties, the former was not really communist at all.

PG said...

At what point are you thinking of the ACLU as having Communist Party ties? It must have been before 1940, when the national ACLU complied with the Smith Act by kicking out the declared Commies.

As for the NAACP, DuBois declared that the Communists had screwed over the Scottsboro boys through their intervention. Langston Hughes said that "the NAACP's initial efforts in behalf of the boys were nullified by the intervention of the Communists. The latter, seeking to exploit the matter for their own ideological purposes, misrepresented the NAACP... and persuaded the boys to abandon the NAACP-provided counsel, which included Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays." There appears to have been a real battle between the NAACP and the ILD over who would represent the defendants.

David Schraub said...

Fortunately, the first Scottsboro Case was decided in 1933, so... :-)