Home > Geeky, History > Flood of racism

Flood of racism

December 3, 2005

I just got ‘round to watching the PBS American Experience episode “Fatal Flood”, taped a couple weeks ago.  It was an amazing, intricate story that left me pondering.  Here’s the oversimplified version…

In 1910 the Ku Klux Klan had reached heights of influence difficult to imagine today.  They raised enormous political power with their message of Jewish conspiracy and the threat of black men to white women.  Just for one example; a progressive Mississippi senator and cotton mogul named LeRoy Percy lost re-election in a landslide to James K. Vardeman, who had said “if it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched… to maintain white supremacy.”

Percy returned to Greenville where in 1922, he stepped up to the podium at a Klan ralley and gave a speech ridiculing the Klan, which resulted in his city passing a resolution condemning the Klan and Percy’s elevation to the status of race-relations hero around the country.

LeRoy Percy was unusual in his determination that black labor was best kept available by fair treatment and even kindness, rather than by violence and oppression.  Percy said it was simply a matter of decency.  The Percy family, he said, had shared personal events with many black families; “we have wept together at funerals and rejoiced together at weddings.”

Then in 1927, a gigantic flood crest made its way down the Mississippi river.  The National Guard and local officials used conscripted black labor – at gunpoint – to reinforce the levees.  The effort failed, sweeping many black workers into the churning darkness.

LeRoy Percy appointed his son, Will Percy, to head the relief effort.  Will was a sensitive man, a writer and poet;  he felt simple decency required evacuating the 13,000 blacks stranded on a long stretch of levee.  He called for riverboats; whites were carried away first, and blacks waited for the boats to return.

LeRoy Percy learned of the evacuation plan, and realized his cheap labor force was about to leave the county.  Would they ever come back?

Local officials had assumed Will Percy spoke for his father, but his father felt otherwise.  One by one he visited Greenville’s officials and told them his son had not spoken for him.  Then he convinced his son to ask the council again about the evacuation plan.

To a man, the council overrode Will Percy’s evacuation plan.  The riverboat captains were turned back, and the National Guard held the blacks at gunpoint on the narrow levee for two months as the waters slowly receded. 

Utterly betrayed by his father, Will percy lost control of the rescue and reconstruction effort.  As the plight of blacks conscripted to rebuild levees threatened to explode into a race war, a black man was shot down on his own porch for refusing to work a double-shift.

Will Percy called local black leaders to a meeting and ascended the pulpit.  His humanitarian resolve crumbled like a sodden levee as he lambasted the blacks for indolence and ingratitude.  “The city of Greenville has rescued you!  Has fed you!  You should be down on your knees begging for forgiveness for the death of that man!”

LeRoy Percy went up North to raise money to rebuild the cotton empire.  Will Percy resigned as head of the rescue effort and left for an extended visit to Japan.  Two years later, LeRoy was dead.

Thus began a massive exodus of blacks from the delta area.  The event wrought changes in the nation’s agricultural labor base, in race relations, and even in Northern industry.  At length Will Percy returned, changed and hardened, to rebuild his father’s cotton empire.  He never wrote poetry again.

The story could not have more pathos, and raises many questions:

  • How well can we know ourselves?  If we fancy ourselves morally ahead of our time, can we know the limits of our progressiveness, and when it will break?

  • How did the Klan achieve such open power?  How did violent oppression ever appear acceptable in an ostensibly Christian culture?  Are the same frameworks of prejudice at work today in another guise, perhaps against other minorities?
  • Our society today makes a fetish of equality, without any agreement on the meaning and implications of that concept.  Can we imagine how our present attitudes will appear in 70 years?  What assumptions about the future inhere to that exercise?
  • Is there no hope of human commerce without prejudicial subtext?
  • Why would anyone in Congress consider cutting funding for PBS?  This is an outstanding documentary: The History Channel is simply not as good. 
  • Why don’t they show more stuff like this in high school history classes?

Give the linked website a visit, and click on the Teacher’s Guide.  It’s some incredible stuff.  I am certainly adding some of the related materials to my reading list.  But I wonder if some of the questions raised by the story will be answered in my lifetime.


Categories: Geeky, History
  1. WeeDram
    December 4, 2005 at 17:47 | #1

    I watched this presentation with a very strange mixture of fascination and disbelief.  Your statement “He never wrote poetry again”, in a poignant way, sums up my feeling.  Unfortunately, the current object of fear are Muslims; I wonder how much has truly changed.

Comments are closed.