Postcards of the Hanging: Race and Sex in Tennessee

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This was the now-infamous advertisement that featured a scantily-clad, bottle-blond young jezebel saying she'd met "Harold at the Playboy party" and asking him to call her. (Ford, along with 3,000 other people, had attended a party thrown by the magazine at the Super Bowl.) The ad, procured by the Republican National Committee, was so ludicrously over the top that Corker was forced to denounce it, while RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman washed his hands of it, saying it had been created by an "independent organization" without the Party's input.

It was, in fact, created by Scott Howell, an old Karl Rove hand who had helped craft some of the biggest smear jobs in the last two election cycles, including scaremongering attack ads for George W. Bush in 2004, as the New York Times reports. Howell was hired for the Ford hit by professional spinmeister Terry Nelson, who had been the political director of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, where he worked cheek-by-jowl with a certain Ken Mehlman. Despite these intricate threads knitting the race-baiters to the White House, Mehlman continued to maintain, with a straight face, that he had no idea what kind of ad his two old friends might concoct when he handed them a big wad of cash for the operation.

The ad made the national news as a symbol of the unprecedented use of gutterball in the 2006 campaign, was roundly condemned by pundits and politicialns everywhere, got Nelson fired from a plum job as a "political adviser" to Wal-Mart, evoked outpourings of sympathy for the victimized Ford, and was finally yanked after just a few days on the air. It was an ignominious failure in every respect but one:

It worked.

Corker, who'd been reeling in the polls for weeks, was suddenly back on top, surging ahead five point after being down by that same margin at the first of the month, as The Tennessean reports. Nor was he so wary of the ad now. "Ever since that attention came on this race from the national media, our numbers have skyrocketed," he told reporters as he held affable court in the leather recliner on his campaign bus. In fact, the "Playboy" piece was immediately followed by another "independent" ad so scurrilous and inaccurate – falsely accusing Ford of, among other things, pushing abortion pills on children – that some stations refused to run it, while Corker himself then produced a widely aired radio spot that featured brooding jungle drums every time Ford's name was mentioned.

Corker had called to "the base"– the hard-core conservatives who had abandoned him after he won a bruising nomination fight against two of their favorites – and they had come home. The seemingly irresistible momentum of Ford's rise, which had carried him from also-ran status to the cover of Newsweek, was stalled. Going into the final days of the campaign, his five-point deficit in the published polls was probably much larger; every black candidate must deal with a "shadow quotient" – a number of white voters, usually 10 to 15 percent, who tell pollsters they are voting for the African-American, but once in the booth pull the lever for the white opponent.

It's old and tattered, and seems to come from another age, a vanished world, but the race card can still win a hand. Especially in the South, where the undead past exerts its ghostly pull on the tides of modern life.

Of course, seamy slurs about sexual transgressions are being used by the GOP all over the country, as the Washington Post reports. For example, New York Democrat Michael Arcuri is being lambasted for "phone sex" because one of his aides once misdialed a number for a government office and momentarily got a porn line instead. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland has been accused of being secretly gay and supporting sex with children: both charges completely spurious – and both prime examples of Freudian projection coming from the party of Mark Foley and his protectors. The list of leering, panting, hand-beneath-the-raincoat Republicans muttering about sex in ads paid for by "secret" committees goes on and on.

In one sense, then, the attack on Ford could be seen simply as part of a broader smear operation focused on sex, not race. But this is sinister sophistry. You cannot introduce such an ad in a contest between black and white candidates without knowing full well what ugly spirits you are summoning from the deep. Especially in the state which gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, and where, as across the South, the lynching of black men accused of dallying with white women is well within living memory.

Tennessee wasn't the worst state when it came to that signature expression of white power, ranking only sixth in the nation for total lynchings, behind such champions as Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. Even so, hundreds died here by noose, knife, gun and flame. Nor were these murders always furtive affairs, kept from the eyes of good Christian society. Lynchings were often carried out in a carnival atmosphere, with families bringing picnic baskets and all the young'uns to watch the fun. Upcoming noose-fests and auto-da-fes were even advertised in the newspapers. On one memorable occasion in Ford's hometown of Memphis, more than 15,000 people gathered to watch the burning of Ell Person, alleged killer of a teenaged white girl, as the Tennessee Historical Society notes.

Side by side with the lynching – indeed far surpassing it in terms of depth and reach through the black community – was the money angle. The end of slavery didn't mean the end of servitude by any means. As each Southern state was returned to the control of its defeated white elites after the Civil War, they quickly gamed the legal system to provide them with a virtually unlimited supply of convict labor – without rights, without protection, in chains, under the bullwhip, just like the good old days. The smallest infractions of the law, petty fines, bad debts – or often, nothing at all but the need of the local bossman – swept multitudes of black men and women into minor jail terms that would be extended by months, sometimes years through draconian "fees" and "court costs" they would have to "work off" – in the fields, in the mines, laying rail, building roads, draining swamps. Savvy brokers contracted with state and local governments to manage the trade in these convicts, many of whom were simply worked to death or crippled for life. There was no profit in looking after them anymore; they were no longer someone's valuable "property" but just so much ever-replaceable fodder churning endlessly through the legal machine.

Freed but disenfranchised, emancipated but still in chains, balked by law and brutal custom from full participation in society, the Southern blacks also made handy targets to divert the anger and dissatisfaction of the "poor white trash" from the elites that exploited them as well, albeit less severely. If even the poorest white man could consider himself superior to someone, if you could keep him tied up in psychological and emotional knots about inferior darkies messing with his women, going to his schools, sitting at his lunch counters, drinking from his water fountains, swimming in his public pools, living in his neighborhoods, why then he'd never make common cause with his black brothers and sisters in poverty to fight for a better life. Canny patricians played whole decks of such race cards to win the votes of the crackers and rednecks they privately despised: "Don't vote for that commie over there talking about unions and fair wages and equality; vote for me, vote for the man who'll keep your women and children – and your drinking water – safe from the Negro!"

This was the system that built the "New South," and was openly maintained and celebrated as late as the 1970s. And despite many cosmetic and some substantive changes, you can still see it peering out from behind the modern scenery at times, in incidents like Trent Lott's hymn of praise in 2002 for Strom Thurmond's virulently race-baiting 1948 presidential campaign. For if the mental habits and unexamined emotional states of subservience can last for more than a hundred years, as in Jim's case that day on our back porch, then certainly ingrained attitudes of racial superiority –and the seething racial hostility bred by guilt and fear, by misdirected anger over economic injustice, by sexual anxieties converted into powerful taboos– are still very much alive in swathes of the white majority today, just a few decades after these traits were being publicly exalted as lofty "traditional values."

This history, this system is the real context for the RNC ad and Corker's jungle drums. These are the deadly ghosts that the Republican Party has been dancing with for decades in its "Southern Strategy" of fomenting white resentment and marginalizing black political participation. Anyone who says that such tactics are not racist is either a fool or a liar – or has no Southern blood, where these restless spirits dwell.

* Photo, "Thunderstorm Passing to the East of Watertown, Tennessee" by Wayne Cowan. This piece originally appeared on


Sons of the South by Chris Floyd


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