James Vardaman and ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman: Racial Radicalism and its Legacy

In this unusual political year, there has been an effort to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. This is the 10th and 11th in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.

The story of our country’s racial history goes through periodic adjustments. For example, under the influence of Southern historians, Reconstruction was seen as a failure, a debacle resulting from incompetent black governments in the former confederate states. It turns out that there were no black governments, only interracial ones, and that they were mostly pretty good.

More recently, a graduate student, in political science no less, at the University of Texas equated slavery and affirmative action, noting that both were bad and both had to be gotten rid of. In some of the recent rewrites of history, the evils of slavery are downplayed, and the realities of segregation and Jim Crow are reduced to separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and the careers of James Vardaman of Mississippi and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina may give us the best window into a dark period in our history, the era in which post-Reconstruction racial radicals were most prominent and extreme racism on the rise.

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The impact of people like Vardaman and Tillman was enormous and can be said to have shaped our country’s demographics and culture in profound ways. For it was the southern radicals, and the nightmarish society that they oversaw, that largely triggered “the Great Migration,” one of the largest mass movements in human history, black people fleeing the segregated south.

As Isabel Wilkerson points out in The Warmth of Other Suns, by the end of the 20th century, there were more black people living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

By the end of the 19th century, the white south had taken another one of its turns on the issue of race. The turn reflected a shift in the white image of black people, a shift that seems to take place with some regularity. From seeing black people as “docile” and “simple folk,” the new image was of “the Negro as beast.” In the words of Wade Hampton, one of the radicals, “a fiend, a wild beast, seeking whom it may devour.” And it was this image that fueled the careers of Vardaman and Tillman, among many others.

This image and the fears that it stoked led to a number of positions, most of which were adopted by southern “Jim Crow” governments and, at least passively, sanctioned by the federal government. Among these positions was the call to deport all black people (remember this is now in the 20th century); blocking the education of black people based on the firmly held belief that more education led to more crime and immorality; disenfranchisement of black people “by any means necessary”‘; and, the sanctioning of lynching, including burning people alive, as a tool of crime prevention and social control.

Not exactly separate water fountains.

In his first campaign for governor of Mississippi, Vardaman said, “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched.” Attacking the idea of educating black children, he said, “The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” Needless to say, he was elected and later moved on to the United States Senate.

In the Senate, he was a leader in the national crusade of racial hatred, focusing on the pressing national issue of black men potentially sitting next to white women on streetcars. In a speech, greeted with loud applause, Vardaman said, “We will need…all the patience and Christian forbearance to save the country from the Negro race.”

It would not be the last time that the values of Jesus and Christianity would be yoked to the goals of racial oppression.

While Vardaman was a great orator, Tillman was a skilled politician and manipulator of systems. Unlike today, when most southern politicians are former used car salesmen, in much of the 20th century, the South sent its brightest men – and a rare woman – to Washington. Tillman was one of them.

And he shared Vardaman’s and the other radicals’ obsession with protecting the virginity of white women, at least from black predators: “I have three daughters, but so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear…conscious that she had died in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her maidenhood by a black fiend.”

Remember, the person making this statement is not an inmate in a lunatic asylum, but a leader of the United States Senate. His solution was a simple one: get rid of black people, especially men, anyway that you could. To achieve his goal, he went out of his way and never missed an opportunity to crush black pride and denigrate any black achievement.

Tillman was also a leader in painting a picture of the “new Negro,” the “beast,” who had been “inoculated with the virus of equality.” He pined for “the old Negro,” the “good Negroes,” those who accepted their innate inferiority and understood “their place.”

In a sad sense, there was good news on the horizon as Vardaman and Tillman faded from the scene. The image of black people in white people’s minds underwent another shift, one that is recognizable to older Americans. It was the age of what one historian has called the “neo-Sambo.” Once again, white people saw “good” Negroes, and enjoyed Amos and Andy, Stepinfetchit and all of the others who played the fool for them in the movies. The civil rights era and new militancy would put an end to that happy period.

In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said something to the effect that she was less concerned about what the Palestinians would do to Israelis than what Israelis would do to themselves as a result of their victory and the domination that they had achieved.

The graduate student at the University of Texas could see, in some abstract way, the harm that slavery had done to black people. In a very concrete way, what he perceived to be the harm that affirmative action had done to white people. What he and few others could never see is the enormous harm that white people had done to themselves in the manner that Golda Meir saw it.

Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.

Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.

Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.

Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.

As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.

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