Race and Class in Civil War Mississippi

Spritzler, John
http://newdemocracyworld.org/old/Culture%20and%20Values/Mississippi.htm
http://connexions.org/CxArchive/NewDem/Mississippi.htm

Publisher:  New Democracy
Date Written:  06/08/2009
Year Published:  2009  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX11071

The poor whites of Mississippi who fought the Confederacy alongside slaves did so because of working class values that they shared with slaves. The fact that poor whites may have believed some racist lies about blacks that constituted the dominant ideas of the day is not nearly as important or significant as the fact that their working class values led them to ally with slaves to fight the racist ruling class. Racism came from the upper class, and anti-racism came from the working class -- black and white.

Abstract: 
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Excerpt:

The poor whites of Mississippi who fought the Confederacy alongside slaves did so because of working class values that they shared with slaves. The fact that poor whites may have believed some racist lies about blacks that constituted the dominant ideas of the day is not nearly as important or significant as the fact that their working class values led them to ally with slaves to fight the racist ruling class. Racism came from the upper class, and anti-racism came from the working class--black and white--in Mississippi during the Civil War.

Knowing about this history of class struggle in Mississippi during the Civil War makes it easier to understand how, in the 1930s throughout the South, black and white tenant farmers united in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union against the large landowners and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and waged successful strikes for better conditions.

The idea that in a society where blacks are on average worse off than whites, being poor and white means being racist is simply not true. It is a myth that the elite loves us to believe, because it causes well-intentioned people, like me and my fellow Dartmouth students in 1966, to view working class whites as the enemy. This myth helps the elite to equate "anti-racism" with "anti-white working class" and thus divide and rule the working class.

The elite is only strengthened when people, in the name of "fighting racism," wrongly assert that ordinary white people benefit from racism and are, therefore, the source of racism. Newton Knight and his men freed slaves while fighting the upper class of the Confederacy because they were for equality and opposed to oppression of anybody--black or white. They knew it was worse to be a slave than a "free" poor white, but they also knew that slavery didn't benefit them, it benefited those who oppressed them. They knew their fight against the Confederacy was strengthened by the solidarity they had with the slaves. Likewise, the slaves who joined with Newton Knight's men knew that the important thing about those men was not that they were better off than slaves but that they were fighting against oppression.

The "left" phrase, "White Skin Privilege," with its implication that working class people with a white skin benefit from racism because they are "privileged" to live in a society in which black people are on average worse off than whites, is profoundly misleading. Thank goodness Newton Knight's men and the slaves they allied with had never heard of that phrase. And thank goodness they all understood that both racial and class inequality are a problem for working class people no matter what their race.

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