Friday, August 09, 2013

The Flood That Reshaped America

When months and months of torrential rain and heavy snows soaked the vast watershed of the Mississippi River in 1927, including more than 1.2 million sq. miles, 31 states and hundreds of rivers draining 41% of America, it created a great flood of truly Biblical proportions.

It was natural for many to view it as cleansing America of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan and its influence over elections and policy.  In the Presidential election of 1924, the first in which women and Native Americans were permitted to vote, KKK members represented a percentage of voters 50% greater than the percentage who affiliate with the Tea Party today.

KKK members probably attributed the flood to the fact that 1924 was the first Presidential election in which women and Native Americans were eligible to cast ballots.  Like the Tea Party, the KKK was resurrected in 1915 in response to an era of progressiveness, only they were predominantly affiliated with Democrats while Tea Party members are predominantly Republican.

They have something else in common.  People who dominated each of these movements are those seeking to legislate ways to make it harder for minorities to vote.  They each obsess about immigrants and they despise government.

In 1924, blacks were overwhelmingly Republican, north and south.  In the previous Presidential election, 95% voted Republican.  It was slightly less in 1924 but by a ratio of 3 to 1, those who didn’t, voted for the Progressive candidate, not the Democrat.

In 1904 the Republican Party platform even called for reducing congressional representation for states that did not allow blacks to vote while the Democratic convention voted down a condemnation of the KKK.

According to historian and researcher John Barry, “in 1927, Senate Republicans threatened to investigate disenfranchisement of southern blacks” after the party had deserted blacks and reconstruction of the south nearly fifty years before.  Yet black voter loyalty remained with the party of Lincoln.

Even as the great flood of 1927 began to inundate and cleanse the heartland of America, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court of the United States outlawed whites-only primaries.  Republicans of that era had grown to see the black vote as belonging to that party by default.

So, what changed?

Why today, are blacks affiliated predominately with the Democratic Party?  Why has the Republican-dominated Supreme Court overturned provisions of the Voting Rights Act, signaling free reign for Republican-dominated legislatures passing laws making it harder to register and vote?

After reading Barry’s excellent book “Rising Tide,” I’ve drawn the conclusion that it may have been brought about most by events manifest just before, during and subsequent to the great flood of 1927.

The greatest flood disaster in U.S. history changed everything.  Below Memphis, the river spread 60 miles wide.  Overall, it affected 27,000 sq. miles, about the size of the entire New England region.

It destroyed 130,000 homes and displaced 700,000 people in a nation of only 119 million at the time.  Nearly 250 deaths were reported, but many probably never were.  It generated $350 million in property damage ($5 billion today,) and severely weakened the nation’s the economy.

Culturally, politically and socially, America matured overnight.

  • The myth that self-help and philanthropy is sufficient without government assistance was shattered.
  • When asked, the federal government assumed full responsibility for the Mississippi River, the largest project in the nation’s history other than war.
  • More than half of the blacks in the region headed north, a labor supply that spelled the end of the feudal south.
  • In the next Presidential election blacks began to dramatically desert the Republican Party.
  • The economy began to lurch, collapsing two years later.
  • The KKK receded into history again.
  • Republican strategists seduced the south by driving a wedge between blacks and whites.
  • The disaster marked the end of the Progressive Era.  Southern whites who supported the KKK began moving to the Republican Party after the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic in 1928.
  • Republicans became the party of “no” and embraced its laissez-faire big business wing.  Southern left-wing populists took root in the south while Democrats formed a new and diverse coalition of activism.

The great flood of 1927 spawned a shift among African-Americans from the Black Wall Street economic philosophies of Tuskegee and Booker T. Washington to the activism of the NCAAP of W.E.B Debois.

Blacks who had been free from slavery for decades had been forced into concentration camps along the river’s massive levees as they were inundated by the flood.  There they were surrounded by armed guards and forced to sandbag and even act as human sandbags while most whites rode out the flood like an inconvenient vacation.

When food aid arrived, whites refused to distribute many types of food to blacks because they would become “spoiled.”  Latent racism ran rampant.  Every myth of the “Southern Redeemers” was exposed and the reality set in motion changes in the understanding of civil rights that would reverberate for forty years and culminate in the Civil Rights Act.

Beginning in the 1970s, the pendulum has swung hard right again, and  many things once washed away by the great flood - while more subtle  – have been re-entrenched.

It may take another great flood to cleanse America.

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