August 15, 2007

Carter, Chiles, Lakeland, and the Civil War

Another fork in the road where the Chiles and Carter stories diverge is Civil War history. Lawton Chiles' hometown of Lakeland has no Civil War history.

Apart from the farm, Carter's "infatuation" with Georgia's red clay soil came from Civil War history:

I've often wondered why were so infatuated with the land, and I think there is a strong tie to the Civil War, or was we called it, the War Between the States. Although I was born more than half a century after the war was over, it was a living reality in my life. I grew up in one of the families whose people could not forget that we had been conquered, while most of our neighbors were black people whose grandparents had been liberated in the same conflict. Our two races, although inseparable in our daily lives, were kept apart by social custom, misinterpretation of Holy Scriptures, and the unchallenged law of the land as mandated by the United States Supreme Court.

In most Southern states, especially in the Deep South, major towns and cities from Jackson to Mobile to Plains to Savannah suffer from residential, political, and cultural divides going back to the Civil War. Just after the Civil War, neighborhoods, businesses, and schools in the South began to follow the law of Jim Crow, and when they weren't at each others throats blacks and whites canceled each others votes at the ballot box--if blacks made it that far. Southern blacks and small cadre of liberal whites voted Republican; conservative and moderate whites voted Democrat to stick it to the North. Their children kept the tradition alive even though none remembered what it was like to put on blue and gray uniforms and kill their neighbors, family, and countrymen. To this day, you've got historically black neighborhoods as far north as Maryland's Eastern Shore and black settlements that began as slave's quarters. It isn't written anywhere or spoken in clear terms, but whites don't walk those streets much even now. Port Street in Easton, Maryland is an example. Or Pine Street in Cambridge, MD. The barricades and gunsmoke may be gone but political fights along racial lines continue...

But Lakeland wasn't settled until after the Civil War in the 1870s and wasn't incorporated until 1885. The railroad tracks divided the town racially and economically. But relative to other Southern towns, Lakeland integrated its schools with little violence.

Maybe this explains partly why civil rights reform never topped Chiles' agenda in the state legislature. The Civil War means a lot more to you in the South if you remember the Union soldiers burning your town. There may be a Confederate statue in Munn Park, but no one born in Lakeland claims any memory of Northern occupation of their town. Without roots in the Civil War or a plantation/sharecropping/slave economy, racial politics may become less of a bramble.

Reuben Askew, who won the governorship the same year (1970) that Chiles won his U.S. Senate bid, hails from Pensacola, which is closer to Mobile, Alabama than to the Tallahassee, Florida. Askew got farther in front on civil rights issues in the 60s and 70s than Chiles ever did. LeRoy Collins, the Florida governor who set the tone for civil rights in Florida and wagered his political career on reconciliation, grew up Tallahassee--smack in the middle of the Old Cotton Belt.

It isn't the whole story, but as Carter says, "Land, Farm, and Place" can tell you a lot about race, politics, and the South. And if there is no story to tell, that's important, too.

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