“It can hardly be expected that any Negro would regret the death of Benjamin Tillman…”
In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was elected to his second term as President of the United States. That year marked, perhaps, the height of what came to be called the Radical Reconstruction of the South: the Republican Party controlled state legislatures and statehouses in many of what, for a few years back in the early 1860s, had been the Confederate States of America. Black voters were registered in the South in numbers never to be seen again until 1965. African-Americans there held public office at nearly all levels of government, from City Hall to the Senate of the United States.
Here, W.E.B. DuBois would later maintain in his great book Black Reconstruction, were the first steps toward radical democracy ever taken in the New World, or, for that matter, any place in the world where whites and people of color lived side by side. In 1872 in South Carolina, for example, blacks were elected to the statewide posts of Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General; and of 155 seats in the legislature, 96 would now be filled by former slaves, or by men who shared their complexion. Reactionaries, together with the academic historians who lent their views a mantle of respectability—men like William Dunning—later attributed this to corruption in the Republican “carpet-bag” regime, as if there simply could be no other explanation. But sixty-percent of the South Carolina population was African-American in 1872 (the majority was larger still in some of the lowland counties); the Democratic Party had never been any friend of theirs; the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had enfranchised them; and they voted. (South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman—soon to be discussed at greater length—admitted as much on the Senate floor in 1900: “In my State there were 135,000 Negro voters, or Negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000?”)
Resistance to Reconstruction had always been bitter in South Carolina, and often violent. By the mid-1870s, white South Carolinians, and the state Democratic Party, were prepared to “redeem” the state from Republican rule, as they liked to say—by any means necessary. The opportunity came in July 1876, as the nation celebrated one hundred years of difficult history. On the 4th, a detachment of state militia, under the command of a black veteran of the Union Army and Republican Party activist named Dock Adams, assembled for a Centennial celebration in the little town of Hamburg, South Carolina, a largely black settlement just across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. (Hamburg is now known as North Augusta, South Carolina, though in fact the latter stands slightly to the north of the older site.) Two young white men, Henry Getzen and Thomas Butler, found their way blocked—or supposed themselves blocked—by the assembly. Insults were exchanged (details of the confrontation vary, according to whether the historian giving them is kindly disposed toward the soi-disant “Redeemers”); and the two white men—being “honourable men,” as Mark Antony might say—took the needful measure of retaining an attorney to press charges against Adams for “blocking the public way.”
The attorney was former Confederate General Matthew C. Butler, a native of those parts, and a Democratic Party agitator. Butler set out for the courthouse in Hamburg on July 8, accompanied by a band of heavily armed whites. By the day’s end, seven blacks had been murdered (the bodies were left in public sight, to point the moral) some thirty more had been summarily imprisoned, and homes and shops belonging to Hamburg’s black citizens lay in ruin. The “Redemption” of South Carolina was underway.
The Hamburg Massacre of 1876 is an episode representative, in too many ways, of what came to be called the “Redemption” of the South from Reconstruction. Two months after the Massacre, in September, a band of armed white men gathered in Edgefield, South Carolina, twenty odd miles northeast of Hamburg. At their head was Nathaniel Butler, a one-armed Confederate veteran and the brother of the attorney who, in July, brought charges against Dock Adams—the black Union Army veteran who headed up the local militia in Hamburg.
And, having gathered, Butler’s mob (calling itself the “Sweetwater Sabre Club”) went looking for one Simon Coker, a black man who was, at the time, a Republican State Senator from nearby Barnwell County, and who had embarked on an investigation of white militancy in that part of South Carolina. Butler and his men seized Coker (he was already in the custody of local whites); they led him into the brush along a country road, and, after permitting him to pray, and agreeing to return the key to his corn-crib to his wife, they shot him dead where he knelt. Party to the business was a young white farmer named Benjamin Tillman (he had also played a role in the Hamburg riots). Afterward, the record shows, Tillman enjoyed a meal of barbecued pig, corn pone, and coffee, and got himself home to Edgefield. The bloody summer of 1876 marked Tillman’s debut in South Carolina politics. He would eventually become Governor, and, later still, would sit for several terms in the Senate of the United States.
When Tillman died in 1918, W.E.B. DuBois wrote an obituary and published it in The Crisis, which he then edited for the NAACP.
We can see in it the influence of Marx, a figure increasingly important, in those days, to DuBois. “It can hardly be expected that any Negro would regret the death of Benjamin Tillman,” DuBois wrote. “And yet it is our duty to understand this man in relation to his time. He represented the rebound of the unlettered white proletariat of the South from the oppression of slavery to new industrial and political freedom. The visible sign of their former degradation was the Negro. They kicked him because he was kickable and stood for what they hated; but they must as they grow in knowledge and power come to realize that the Negro far from being the cause of their former suffering was their co-sufferer with them. Some day a greater than Tillman,” DuBois continued, “will rise in the South to lead the white laborers and small farmer, and he will greet the Negro as a friend and helper and build with him and not on him. This leader is not yet come, but the death of Tillman foretells his coming and the real enfranchisement of the Negro will herald his birth.”
The “unlettered white proletariat of the South,” the very men Ben Tillman represented, had themselves been “oppressed” by slavery: the insight is characteristic of DuBois, as is also the promise he holds out of a real “redemption”—this vision of a revolutionary class solidarity that would, at the end of the day, resolve the problem of the color line not only where it scarred the county of Edgefield, South Carolina, and not only where it divided the United States, but where it had, by generations of Europeans, been etched across what we now call the Third World. It may be that only a man burdened by “double-consciousness” (as DuBois famously called it) could have achieved just this insight, and entertained just this promise, in the last year of the First World War between the great colonial powers, and the first year of the Bolshevik Revolution. It is certainly the case that DuBois was writing, as he penned his oddly inspiring obituary of a damned “Redeemer,” about the troubled “souls” of white folk.
On 29 March 1900, Ben Tillman had stood in the Senate Chamber to deliver a speech. In it he acknowledged—DuBois would hardly have objected—that the “race question” had “been the cause of more sorrow, more misery, more loss of life, more expenditure of treasure than any and all questions which have confronted the American people from the foundation of the Government to the present day. Out of it grew the war, and after the war came the results of the war, and those results are with us now. The South has this question always with it. It cannot get rid of it. It is there. It is,” he affirmed, unforgettably, “like Banquo’s ghost, and will not down.”
Had he read this, DuBois might have said: Give the unlettered old boy enough rope and he will lynch even himself. For here, to be sure, is an example of a man astonishingly unaware of what his words imply. Here is dramatic irony of a very high order. But it may be better to imagine (again, as DuBois might have) that Tillman is, in fact, somehow aware that his allusion to Macbeth constitutes the inadvertent confession of a ruthless politician—a politician who was accessory to the murder of another politician, Simon Coker, in 1876, in order to get his start. Surely it is fitting that Tillman, and the post-Reconstruction South he helped create, should be haunted, as Macbeth was, by the specter of a good man slaughtered along the king’s highway in a drive for absolute power; and fitting, as well, that he (and it) should have been made sleepless by the fear that that good man’s sons—like the sons of Fleance—must someday inherit the kingdom.
But however that may be, a shrewder, because more deliberate, evocation of the same unquiet banquet in Shakespeare’s tragedy comes in The Souls of Black Folk, three years after Tillman strutted and fretted his hour upon the Senate stage with Banquo’s ghost. It is as good a passage as any with which to conclude this entry. “And yet,” DuBois says, thinking of Banquo’s apparition, and quoting Macbeth’s horrible importunity,—“And yet the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed place at the Nation’s feast. In vain do we cry out to this our vastest social problem:
The Nation has not yet found peace in its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.” That Tillman and DuBois should alike have been enthralled by Macbeth—that they should both, in fact, have re-imagined our America as Macbeth’s bloody Scotland;—this is a telling irony of American literary history, and one not even the “weird sisters” could have arranged. It makes one wonder what William Dean Howells could possibly have had in mind when he famously said, in 1886, ten years after the sorry collapse of the Reconstruction, that “the more smiling aspects of life” are “the more American,” that “the large, cheerful average of health and success and happy life” is “peculiarly American,” and that the human race, in America, “has enjoyed conditions in which most of the ills that have darkened its annals might be averted by honest work and unselfish behavior.”
Honest work and unselfish behavior hadn’t gotten the freedmen anywhere; the lynchings rolled on by the day. Howell’s ability to ignore this fact is a characteristic American talent, and in it he is perfectly sincere. But terror, as DuBois would have understood, was nothing new on our soil when, with Timothy McVeigh, it came to Oklahoma City in a rented van in 1995. Nor should we, in 1995, have been at all surprised—and this, too, DuBois would have understood—that the terrorist carried in his pocket a copy of The Turner Diaries, a novel by a white supremacist devotee of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nor should we fail to see the significance of the fact that McVeigh wore on his T-shirt a picture of Abraham Lincoln above the legend—they were the white supremacist John Wilkes Booth’s words in Ford’s Theater—Sic Semper Tyrannis. In America, the problem of the twentieth century was, all the way down to 1995, all the way down to Oklahoma City, the problem of the color line.
N.B.: For Jeffery Miller’s essay about the “redemption” of the South by violence, cf. the first “comment” below, where I have reprinted it in part; in that essay, Miller retells the story of Dock Adams and the Hamburg Massacre. For Ben Tillman’s now infamous speech on the Senate floor defending lynching, click here. A brief extract follows: “We [South Carolinians] did not disfranchise the Negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the Negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his ‘rights’—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Ben Tillman is still honored by a statue (dedicated in 1940) on the South Carolina State House Grounds (though legislation has been introduced either to remove it, or to add a plaque that tells his story truly). For a good, brief history of the “redemption,” cf. Stephen Budiansky’s book The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (Viking, 2008). The story of the Hamburg Massacre, of the murder of Simon Coker, and of Tillman’s accessory role in both, is retold yet again there in chapter five, titled, after the newspaper cant of the day, “The Passion-Stirring Event at Hamburg.” Finally, for a transcript of testimony taken by the U.S. House of Representatives pertaining to these “passion-stirring events,” cf. “comment” two, below.