“……..his political coalition, comprising chiefly of poor white farmers and industrial workers, began to describe themselves proudly as “rednecks”, even to the point of wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics.” – Description of James Kimble Vardaman
I am reading a book called White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. In her book she describes a character by the name of James K. Vardaman, a politician from the state of Mississippi who served as Governor from 1904 to 1908 and as a U.S. Senator from 1913 to 1919.
Ms. Isenberg does not go into extensive detail about this man. He is simply a reference point, a footnote, during a very ugly time in the South. But what she does offer reminded me immediately of someone else, someone current and how that someone has given others a voice and seemingly validated their platform.
“It would be hard for any man of this day to explain the hold that Vardaman had on what was called the “common people” of his day and time. He was, I think, the most striking and extraordinary personality I have known. On this day, he was clad in snow white, even his shoes and necktie were white. He was above the average in height, his hair was as black as a crow’s wing, it was combed straight back over his head, and fell in waves all the way down to his shoulders. When he emphasized strongly some point, he raised his right hand with index finger pointed above his head, and swung his head from side to side causing his long black hair to sway to and fro. Enemies said that he memorized his speeches and even stood before a mirror and practiced his gestures. Be that as it may, they were perfection in oratory and his delivery was superb.” – Dennis Murphree, a former governor of Mississippi, in a 1945 news article describing seeing Vardaman speak at a campaign rally as a 17-year-old.
Vardaman appealed to the common man, in that era, poor farmers, laborers and industrial workers. He ran a populist campaign, touting himself as a voice for those silenced by Mississippi’s elite ruling class. Interestingly enough he had much more in common with the “elites” than he did with the poor dirt farmers that got him elected, much like our current someone.
And what was his platform, his appeal? How did he rally these troops of support? White supremacy. Vardaman was known as “The Great White Chief”. He advocated a policy of state-sponsored racism against African-Americans, saying that he supported lynching in order to maintain Mississippi’s white purity. Sadly he found a supportive audience with this rhetoric and rode this wave to the capital of Mississippi and then to Washington. Thankfully, in both cases, he only served one term in each office.
Am I reading too much into this comparison? Can you see how our current someone’s plan to deport masses of undocumented immigrants, build a wall on the Mexican border, and end birthright citizenship was viewed by white nationalist groups as support and validation of their efforts to restore white supremacy in America. I will let you be the judge.
“America was, until this last generation, a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” – Richard B. Spencer, an American white nationalist, President of the National Policy Institute and Trump supporter
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