Seizing Freedom: David Roediger with Peter St. Clair
The brief moment of jubilation for their newfound freedom that burned in the hearts of the freed slaves was bludgeoned to death by the terrorist forces unleashed by the former slave owners and their poor-white allies. The hopes they held for a shining future of acceptance and equality were finally crushed by the compromise around the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. The Republican Party withdrew its support from the radical abolitionist wing of the party, which had fought after the war to make emancipation a reality by providing suffrage, schools, and land for the freedmen. In return for the Presidency, the Republicans, now controlled by the rising industrial power of eastern capital, agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and allow the former Confederates to resume political and economic control over the southern states. The plantation owners regained the use of the labor of their former slaves on terms sufficiently exploitative for them to profit as handsomely as before. The poorer white population resumed their role of overseers and slave catchers, now enforcing newly introduced black codes. Jim Crow, segregation, chain gangs, and lynchings made a mockery of the idea of freedom for the black population of the South. This situation became institutionalized by the turn of the nineteenth century and lasted until formal segregation was ended with the Civil Rights Act. It reverberates still in the racism that continues to plague American life.
A lone voice crying out in the wilderness throughout the Jim Crow era was that of W.E.B. Du Bois. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America,published in 1935, told a completely different story of Reconstruction than the commonly accepted fairy tale of corrupt and greedy carpetbaggers from the North and treacherous scalawags from the South manipulating the ignorant ex-slaves for their own rapacious ends. Du Bois tells of the slaves’ self-emancipation as they abandoned the plantations and fled to the approaching Union armies, and the pivotal role that the general strike of the slaves played in the outcome of the war (both by robbing the Confederacy of laborers and by offering themselves to the Union Army, first as laborers and finally as soldiers). He—and more recent historians like Eric Foner—have managed to bring to light the real and inspiring story of the freedom movement that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation and the fifteenth amendment granting suffrage to the freed slaves. The narrative of the political struggle to secure those rights and the resulting social tragedy when that fight was lost is a sad and bitter one, but the brief time before the defeat was ripe with real possibilities for profound social change.
Looking more closely at that moment and the kinetics of the revolutionary movement can be a benefit for those of us today who still harbor hopes for meaningful social change. David Roediger, professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas, deals with this material in his book, Seizing Freedom, Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All (Verso, 2014). He concentrates on that revolutionary moment when the infectious jubilation of the freed slaves and their trust in the future inspired sympathizers in both North and South and sparked other freedom movements among workers, women, immigrants, and American Indians. It’s both a stirring and a cautionary tale, and one that I found has a surprising number of parallels in contemporary movements both in America and abroad.
Peter St. Clair (Rail): It is an essential theme of your book that the self-emancipation of America’s black slaves informed and inspired other social movements that emerged during and after the Civil War, primarily but not exclusively the labor movement and the women’s movement. We saw a similar phenomenon in the ’60s, as the Civil Rights movement seemed to ignite the student movement, the anti-war movement, and a new feminism in America and abroad. As you mention in your introduction, a similar process occurred in the spreading revolutionary activity around the world that emerged from the Arab Spring. Do you think that acknowledging the connection between disparate movements historically and in the present time can help to preserve and extend these relationships and have a positive effect?
David Roediger: For about thirty years I annually taught, in one state university or another, five to seven hundred students, in a U.S. history survey covering 1877 to the present. Except I could never start in 1877, the year that the counter-revolution ending Reconstruction officially took effect; to do so would have meant beginning with that rightward plunge and ending with Reaganism. Instead, I began in 1861 and with the ideas that animate Seizing Freedom. The drama becomes the seemingly impossible self-emancipation of four million slaves and how their audacity, heroism, and victory inspired others to think about how their own freedom might come, making the U.S. a world leader in pressure for an eight-hour working day, for women’s suffrage, and even for Irish independence. The brutal repression attending the restoration of white elite rule in the South then becomes a logical and terrible response to challenges from below. History is not only noteworthy for its dreary daily oppressions, nor for its rightward lurches, but also for glorious periods in which impulses towards freedom mature and cross-pollinate, producing motion that exceeds anything that extrapolations from the small victories and losses of “normal” times could predict. I lived through such a period in the days, as you say, of the Black Freedom Movement and the New Left. The heady days of the Arab Spring so reminded me of how things move when they move that I at last wrote down my long-rehearsed lectures on emancipation as Seizing Freedom. The importance of knowing about such periods of what historians of French Revolution call “revolutionary time” lies not just in giving us hope, which in any case must be balanced against sharp disappointments when counter-movements effectively hit back and coalitions break apart. Thinking through the responsibilities to each other of groups thrown into solidarity by the contagion of liberation is also what is at stake in studying revolutionary times.
Rail: Central to the story you tell is the concept of Jubilee, the ex-slaves’ concept of “making freedom and making meaning of freedom.” I have only seen the term used this way by David Levering Lewis in his introduction to Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. How did you arrive at this usage?
Roediger: Full disclosure is a little embarrassing here. It was almost forty years ago, reading sources while editing Frederick Douglass’s papers at Yale, that I first noticed the use of “Jubilee” by enslaved and by self-emancipated people. Raised Catholic, I had little experience reading the Bible; the word “Jubilee” just denoted a celebration for me. Perhaps twenty years later I was driving through a radio-deprived area of northern Wisconsin on my way to a small college to give a talk. The one AM show coming in clearly gave investment advice to born-again Christians. A caller hoped to get out of repaying a debt, arguing that it was seven years old and the Bible teachings on Jubilee suggested to him that the debt was therefore cancelled. The host mostly wanted to be sure nobody got out of paying debts. But in passing he conveyed the series of radical reforms occurring every seven years, and especially every seven times seven years, in the fiftieth year, as prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. These included emancipation of slaves, forgiveness of debt, and (importantly for freedpeople in the 1860s U.S.), redistribution of land. Denied literacy in the main and the Bible as well, those emancipating themselves nevertheless knew just where in the Old Testament to turn for liberation theology. I became, perforce, a little bit of a Bible reader, and learned more from the great historian Peter Linebaugh’s article “Jubilating,” which makes an exciting verb out of how radicals in much of the Atlantic world used the concept of Jubilee.
Rail: You write extensively about the role the Republican Party played in coopting and defusing the post-Civil War social movements, stating in your introduction: “the problem of reconciling social movements with the two-party system would be enduring.” We are certainly witnessing that endurance today as the Democratic Party plays a similar role forcing social activists who backed the anti-establishment candidacy of Bernie Sanders into supporting Hillary Clinton to safeguard against a Trump victory. Do you see a way out of this impasse?
Roediger: In many ways our plight on this score is worse even than that of post-Civil War radicals. They could look back on the party system breaking apart and reconfiguring itself regularly, especially with the end of the Federalists and then of the Whigs. The Republicans were themselves a successful new party and when radicals began Greenback-Labor parties, or socialist-feminists initiated the Equal Rights Party, or capitalist modernizers founded the Liberal Republicans, they could reason that they were the wave of the future. We face a far more ossified two-party stranglehold, as evidenced by a choice between two candidates neither trusted nor liked by anything like most voters provoking no loud outcry against the whole system. Because election cycles now are so excruciatingly long, to be “political” increasingly means to prefer one terrible choice or another and to react to events in contrived news cycles. At the same time, as the Sanders campaign perhaps showed, there is a certain brittleness and vulnerability in a worn-out system. Almost certainly, if one party splits both will fracture in multiple ways. (But then, I’ve been saying that for almost half a century.) One useful watchword is to insist that voting is very far from the most important insurgent activity in which we engage.
Rail: I found especially interesting the link you draw between the nineteenth-century conception of disability and the discrimination manifested against African Americans, women, and immigrants. Do you think that this is still a factor today?
Roediger: Perhaps the single most exciting recent article by a U.S. historian is Doug Baynton’s wonderful “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” It shows how African Americans, women, and immigrants struggling in the U.S. for freedom have long had to prove that they were not disabled—not mentally deficient, not hysterical, not contagiously diseased, and not culturally blighted, for example. Where, Baynton asks, does this leave us in fighting for disability rights? The sections on disability in Seizing Freedom use Baynton’s work to ask what happened when hundreds of thousands of newly disabled white veterans and millions of self-active, able black freedpeople emerged simultaneously onto the stage of history during the Civil War. I think that today’s crisis in education among the racialized poor in the U.S., for example, continues the awful tradition of using labels of disability to further inequality. The hydraulics of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline depends on the same connections.
Rail: As a member of the white working class, I have spent a lot of time confronting some of my fellow workers about white supremacist attitudes. One of the common arguments I have heard is that slavery has been ended for a hundred and fifty years so it can no longer be invoked as having a bearing on the conditions of African Americans today. To me this demonstrates an ignorance of the history of Reconstruction, of the implementation of Jim Crow in its aftermath, of convict labor, chain gangs, and the long and horrible history of lynchings and terror visited on the ex-slaves and their descendants. I believe that an honest retelling of African American history is essential for a proper understanding of racial discrimination and race prejudice today. As a history professor, do you see improvement in students’ understanding of this history? Is American secondary education showing any progress on this score?
Roediger: Much conspires against such progress. At the K – 12 level, excellent teachers are often wedded to a curriculum criminally driven by standardized tests. Thus when a day is freed up every so often to leave such drudgery behind and to watch, perhaps, a documentary on inequality, the ensuing discussion is seen as outside the real business of the class and too often more about feelings than analytical skills. Nevertheless a great deal of learning does go on, often without teachers present. Indeed, the insistence on making the official curriculum arid—and in many U.S. states implausible—might be seen as partly born of a panicked realization that the pieties of an American exceptionalist narrative ignoring racial oppression are already on the run.
Rail: Is the “white blindspot” lessening among Americans in general, as seems to be the case among the younger generation, or is the appeal of Trump an indication that white supremacy continues to play a significant role in American culture and politics?
Roediger: What the great communist historian Theodore Allen called the “white blindspot” refers not only to an inability among many whites to acknowledge systematic oppression of people of color in the U.S. but also an inability to perceive—the ableist language of blindness here is regrettable—that the real but pitifully meager “white privilege” on offer to whites costs dearly, short-circuiting movement towards a good society. Such a clinging to whiteness as a natural position of advantage that needn’t be examined is under considerable attack from at least two sides. One is the effective insistence of Black Lives Matter and other social movements that stories of the racially oppressed will be seen and heard. The other is the rising and crushing inequality among whites brought on by neoliberal austerity, the destruction of union power, and financialization. As always, results are far from preordained. Take, for example, the shrillness with which the slogan “All Lives Matter” has been embraced by media on the right as somehow an answer to Black Lives Matter. On the one hand such shallow sloganeering depresses in that it registers ways that pretend colorblindness continues to appeal to white commonsense. On the other, the All Lives Matter shibboleth seems increasingly desperate in the mouths of those whose every other utterance expresses love for accumulation far more than for humanity. Almost any group of young white people contains some who can speak forcefully to why Black Lives Matter is a demand for universal freedom. I develop these ideas more in Race, Class, and Marxism, a new book appearing from Verso in early 2017.
Rail: Universal freedom implies a change in the fundamental social relations of capitalism. Political enfranchisement does not amount to much when the system is skewed to the interests of the owning class and the majority of working people find themselves at the mercy of policies that keep them unemployed or in unsecured underpaid jobs, with overpriced housing, high medical and educational costs, and an increasing differential in wealth and social power between the working class and the capitalist class. For the first time in many generations a self-avowed socialist was a presence in mainstream American politics, yet the Bernie Sanders-inspired movement, for all its surprising popularity, did not lead to a debate on the merits of socialism or even a discussion of what socialism might mean. Nor did it gain much support among African Americans. Just as in the post-Civil War era and in every era since, the American working class must overcome the racial divide if it is ever to develop into a force strong enough to challenge the rule of capital. Do you see any prospects for a unified socialist movement that can appeal to all segments of the working class, white, black, immigrants, young, and old, one that can at least question the inevitability of the capitalist order?
Roediger: That’s very acute phrasing regarding the Sanders campaign and the tasks before us in moving from a new openness towards socialism, especially among young people, towards a productive discussion of what a powerful socialist movement would entail. The relation of the Sanders campaign to Black freedom movements is complicated in an interesting way. As in the 1860s and ’70s and in the 1950s and ’60s, recent social motion by African Americans has helped create space for imagining new possibilities among everybody. In fact, in the current conjuncture the incredible, partly successful, and now hardly discussed general strikes supporting immigrant rights might be seen as also ushering in new imaginings of the power of mass movements. In the more recent past, can we really imagine the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign without the various movements for black lives that emerged between the wrenching defeat of Occupy and 2016? All the more reason then, perhaps, to regret that the Sanders campaign has not generated a movement making black, native, and immigrant rights central to what new socialist initiatives will look like. But we may still be in early days yet.
Rail: Let’s hope so. The great social tragedy that unfolded after the final defeat of Black Reconstruction in 1877, which you cover in the Afterword to Seizing Freedom, reverberated in American and world history for the next hundred years and continues to affect present events. By shining a light on the brief revolutionary moment that preceded it and caused such jubilation and hope, you show not only the awe-inspiring power of the freedom movement to turn history on its head, to awaken other social movements and to suddenly present alternatives that had until that moment been thought of as impossible dreams, but also the price we pay by letting such chances slip away.
Peter St. Clair was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.