A Historical Footnote On Race And Politics

In Weekend Edition Sunday's month-long series on race and politics, each week begin with a look back at times when racial tensions were instrumental to shaping politics. We start in 1865, just after the Civil War ended and the South surrendered. Advisory: Listeners may find some language offensive.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Today, we begin a month-long series on race and politics based on conversations generated by you. We'll also hear from NPR's news analyst Juan Williams about how race has often played a divisive role in American politics. But we begin with this historical footnote.

(Soundbite of documentary "How the South Won the War")

Unidentified Actor #1: They always said this was a white man's government, and that the colored man had no rights that white men are bound to the respect.

HANSEN: "Between Civil War and Civil Rights" is a radio documentary series by independent producer Alan Lipke. You're listening to some excerpts adapted from one of the shows, "How the South Won the War."

Following the south's surrender in 1865, four million impoverished ex-slaves roamed free. Defeated Confederates found their society in ruins. One of them was army officer J.C. Lester.

(Soundbite of documentary "How the South Won the War")

Unidentified Actor #2: The young men of Polaski said, boys, let us get up a club or society of some description.

HANSEN: They took the name Ku Klux Klan. It started as a way to have fun and pull pranks, but they soon found those pranks could be used to scare and intimidate newly freed slaves at a time when racial tensions were high.

(Soundbite of documentary "How the South Won the War")

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Charles C. Jones, Jr.) If insensible to every other consideration, terror must be made to operate upon their minds, and fear prevent what curiosity and desire for utopian pleasures induce them to attempt. Charles C. Jones Jr., ex-colonel of Confederate States Army, ex-mayor of Savannah.

HANSEN: The Klan and other groups used scare tactics that escalated to floggings and violence. In 1871, after President Ulysses S. Grant reported 5,000 acts of terror throughout the Union-occupied south, a reluctant Congress held hearings into the unrest.

(Soundbite of documentary "How the South Won the War")

Unidentified Actor #4: (As Larry White) My name is Larry White. I live in Jackson County, Florida. I had to deny voting radical just to save myself. After I'd said that, they seemed to excuse me and said, oh, Larry, he's a good nigger. They should all be like him.

HANSEN: Witness Plaid O'Durham(ph) defended the Klan.

(Soundbite of documentary "How the South Won the War")

Unidentified Actor #5: (As Plaid O'Durham) The idea that outrages upon negroes have been committed by that organization is in my opinion preposterous. The obligation was to support the Constitution of the United States, to protect each other, and to vote for white men for office.

HANSEN: Six months of rancorous, partisan hearings revealed lynchings, torture, and other brutality. Those acts were meant to control blacks and keep them from exercising their rights as citizens.

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A Conversation: How Race Influences Two Voters

Trish Callahan

hide captionTrish Callahan, who is biracial, says she has experienced racism from both blacks and whites.

Courtesy of Trish Callahan
Greg Harden

hide captionGreg Harden says race is "too much of an issue in this country, unfortunately."

Courtesy of Greg Harden

Read Commentaries

The two listeners interviewed for this piece wrote about the way race could influence their voting in this year's presidential race.

Trish Callahan of Maine wrote that she wants to elect a politician who is able to transcend racial politics.

Greg Harden of New York wrote that racism is more polarizing than ever before.

With Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the first African-American presidential candidate, the issue of race will undoubtedly play a role in the way many voters view the election. To kick off Weekend Edition Sunday's ongoing series about race and politics, host Liane Hansen spoke with two listeners, Greg Harden of Rochester, N.Y., and Trish Callahan of Portland, Maine.

Harden, who is white, spent the majority of his life living in suburbs. Callahan has a black biological father and white mother, but grew up in a white family after she was adopted.

They discussed their views on race in this excerpted conversation.

Liane Hansen: Have there been experiences that you have had that make you believe that there is such a gap between black and white Americans?

Greg Harden: Absolutely. I mean, my son goes to a city school, and he's 10. And he comes home with stories about how the little black kids say how they hate all white people. They pick on him, and he gets beat up. You know, I've tried to raise him treating everybody equal, and I don't know what to say to him.

Hansen: Greg mentioned his experiences with hostility between the races, and Trish, I noticed you've also experienced racism from both blacks and whites. Can you tell us some of the situations you've had to deal with?

Trish Callahan: It's been very challenging for both myself and my immediate family, as well as my extended family. One set of my grandparents were racist for most of their lives, and toward the end of their lives they began to see things differently. And I once attended a basketball camp with a lot of inner-city black girls — and I did run into quite a bit of racism from the other girls, sort of resenting my whiteness and the white family, and things like that. So I've definitely received it from both sides, and understand the hostility from both sides, given the history.

Hansen: Do you think that voters can realistically ignore race when they've had the kinds of experiences that you've had?

Callahan: It is not an easy leap to make, no. And historically, we are so immersed in traumatic incidents around this particular issue. But I think it's time for us to really stop and reflect on how much of that history are we going to choose to recreate in our children's minds and lives and perceptions of the world.

Harden: It's too much of an issue in this country, unfortunately. And it's wrong. I mean, it feels wrong when you get that racist feeling, you know it's wrong, you know. But it's so prevalent in this country, you know, it's going to be an issue.

Hansen: How will race affect your vote?

Harden: I'm actually thinking about exercising my right to not vote this election, because neither one of them really does it for me.

Callahan: I don't think race will come into play, honestly. I'm definitely looking more at leadership styles. And I'm looking for someone to step up to the plate with some hard messages about other things, and I'm more concerned about their leadership styles definitely than race.

Hansen: Why do you think race is such a big deal in this campaign?

Harden: Well, because it's a black man and a white man running against each other. If Obama is elected and he does a good job, I think people will accept that. But I think if he does a bad job, I think a lot of people — and I'm not saying this is right — but I think a lot of people will equate it with his race.

Callahan: Oh, that's a tough one to answer. I think that everyone is hurt by this subject and very uncomfortable by this subject. And so I think we all feel this wanting to move beyond it. And in Senator Obama, we see this opportunity to sort of move beyond it and say look, a black man has achieved this office.

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